This month a respected and well-loved Englishman leaves Japan. Known for his humor, humanity and quick wit, the Rev. John Berg is retiring from Yokohama Christ Church, where he has been rector since 1968. Three years ago, he retired from Yokohama’s Mission to Seamen, where he was concurrently chaplain.
“It was my choice to stay this long in Yokohama,” he said. “But times change, and we have to acknowledge change.”
He comes from a farming family in Suffolk, southeast England. As a young man, he said, “I dibbled and dabbled in different things. When I said I wanted to enter the church, my father wanted to make sure that was not another dabbling. After I convinced him, he gave me more than 100 percent encouragement.” Berg studied in the Salisbury Theological College and was ordained in the landmark 13th century cathedral there.
Before coming to Japan, Berg worked with the Missions to Seamen in Hong Kong. This British organization had then some 80 port branches and over 130 representatives throughout the world. In Yokohama the mission celebrated its centennial in 1980.
In his earlier years in Yokohama, Berg visited ships, and sailors who came ashore for hospital treatment. He invited seafarers of all nationalities to make use of the mission’s recreational facilities as well as its church services. He offered guidance to the Yokohama and Tokyo areas. He said: “Now ships turn around so quickly the men don’t get time off. They see just the container terminals. The interest they used to have in the old days to see Japan is now so changed. They still value having a person visit and sit and chat with them.”
A pianist and conductor of his choir, Berg is also of an uninhibited theatrical bent. He was associated with the Hong Kong Players during his brief stay there. Thirty years ago in Yokohama, he directed and performed in a production of “The Hollow Crown.” He called that “entertainment at its best.” He said: “It was readings from all the kings of England since they were kings. Stories with music make a captivating form of entertainment.” At his first Christmas in Yokohama, Berg put on the pantomime “Aladdin.” The last pantomime he staged was called “Ali Baba and the Four Tea Thieves.” He explained that was his way of getting around finding the 40 actors that the original story called for. His version of “Ali Baba, complete with flying teapots,” is a remembered triumph.
“Interest in theater also belongs to the past,” Berg said of himself. “I converted that into stories of the history of Yokohama, and putting them on to CDs. I love stories, especially if they are true. I love telling them, and having other people listen to them.” He enjoys “gathering people together, singing and talking,” and imbuing them with his own joyousness.
He is a natural storyteller, turning every incident into a tale that he repeats with unflagging delight. He said he began digging around in Yokohama, and found stories that were “sagacious and deceitful, in both Japanese and foreign characters, a wonderful balance.” He researched freely in the Archives of History in Yokohama, an institution that he calls “a treasure trove of stuff.” He collected stories from the very early days of Yokohama. “In 1859, Yokohama was a tough, rough place. There was nothing there except a few fishing boats. I try as far as possible not to embellish or embroider the stories. Maybe I highlight a little bit, but I tell a story as I hear it.” He found accounts of early traders, missionaries, diplomats and their women, up to the 1923 earthquake. His later stories, anyway from 1968, are his own, packed with his kind of immediacy, retold with relish.
He loves Yokohama. “Yokohama has all the advantages of the big city, but for the foreign community it is a small village. This was perfect for me.”
Berg will retire to a small village in Suffolk. The son of a farmer loves gardens but dislikes gardening, so his new home is an apartment. His village is surrounded by hills and rivers, “not grand scenery, but comfortable country,” he said. He knows that sometimes he will be asked to speak at meetings, and that his temptations will be to tell old stories from the past in this part of the world. “Then people will say, don’t invite that old bore from Yokohama to speak to us again,” he laughed.