The Inari Shrine of Mount Holyoke’s Skinner Museum: Initial Considerations

One of the most intriguing objects in the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum at Mount Holyoke College is a small Japanese Shinto shrine dedicated to the kami or dinvity Inari. For some years, the wooden structure, about four feet high and resting on a table, has been listed in museum records as a “replica” of an earlier, larger shrine, but evidence suggests that the displayed object is in fact the original shrine, constructed in in the year 1839 in Mito city in northern Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. Records indicate the shrine was presented to Mount Holyoke Professor Mary Hussey by Friends (Quaker) Missionary Herbert Nicholson n the mid 1930s.

It is my hope that in Spring 2023 the students in my museum studies seminar will explore the object’s history and meanings in depth. Here are my preliminary notes on the object. I would be very grateful if colleagues and friends in Japan and elsewhere could share their insights into the shrine’s history and the remarkable lives of Herbert Nicholson and Mary Inda Hussey.


Like many Inari shrine, the structure has a high sloping roof. Its front entrance is protected by folding double doors that can be locked or opened with a key A staircase of five steps and banisters leads up to the entrance. The central structure is flanked by a balcony and railing on its right, left, and front sides. (See Museum Collections record on line.) A January 1937 student newspaper article, reproduced below, asserts that included “behind the inner sanctuary” of the shrine is a mirror, associated in Shinto with the presence of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. (The museum curator notes there is no record of a mirror associated with the shrine.)

The shrine and about 20 associated accessory objects were donated by the Society of Friends (Quaker) missionary Herbert Victor Nicholson (1892–1983) in December 1935 or December 1936 (accounts vary) to Mount Holyoke Professor of religious studies Mary Inda Hussey, (1876-1952) a noted Assyriologist who was deeply interested in comparative religion. Hussey’s typed captions suggest that the shrine was removed from its original location in order to make room for a Friends ( Quaker ) meeting house in Mito., the capital city of Ibaraki Prefecture, about 130 km northeast of Tokyo. The date of this removal is unclear. A postcard, undated, (below) shows the laying of the Mito meeting house cornerstone. This meetinghouse may have been built in 1912.

Professor Hussey’s label records,

“This Inari shrine was erected in Mito, Japan, in 1839, two years later than the founding of Mount Holyoke Seminary. The Friend’s Mission, having brought the property on which the shrine stood, wished to dispose of it in a manner worthy of its workmanship, of the rare keaki wood of which it is made, and of the aspirations of which it has been the center. Because of my interest in religion, Mr. Herbert Nicholson, in charge of the Mission, gave it to me in December 1936, I have given it to the College, believing such an example of the religious culture of another people is of interest to students.”

A front page article in the Mount Holyoke News for January 9, 1937 gives a slightly different account: “Dr. Hussey obtained this rare object while on sabbatical year last year, and has presented it to the college…The shrine…was discovered on Mission property in Mito, Japan by Herbert Nicholson. To avoid the complications that would ensue had he forbidden its use by the natives, he presented this object of oriental religious rites to Dr. Hussey. “

A typed label affixed to the shrine roof states, “Under the ridge, which is removable, is written the date of the making of the shrine, Tempo 10 year (1839), December 1st. Built by Takeguchi Kichibei, aged 29.”

On February 6, 2023, Skinner Museum staff kindly removed the roof ridge ple and allowed its interior to be photographed. Historian Jordan Sand (Georgetown University) notes that the inscription actually says:” tategu craftsman Kichibei made this.” 建具師 (Tategushi), he notes, “is a maker of doors and decorative woodwork. There is no family name..”

Interior of Shrine roof, inscription on date and name of craftsman. .

Stored under the table on which the shrine rests is a brass shrine bell, which Hussey’s label explains would have been affixed to the eaves of the “simple building” within such a shrine would be stored to protect it from the weather. Even accounting for this degree of protection, the 180 year old structure does seem to be in remarkably good shape, showing relatively little signs of wear across the decades.

Associated notes by Professor Hussey explain how to unlock, open and close the shrine’s double doors.

Inari Veneration

There are about 3,000 registered official Inari shrines in present-day Japan, many of them elaborate and marked by multiple vermilion torri gateways. In addition, it is not unusual in Japan to come across small Inari shrines in agricultural fields or by a roadside, roughly of the dimensions of the Skinner Museum’s shrine. These are at times associated with larger Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. (Matsui Keisuke estimates that they are around 30,000 Inari shrines of various sizes scattered through Japan.)

Throughout Japan, the divinity Inari has particularly strong associations with rice cultivation, business practice, and general well being. Foxes (kitsune) are consider familiars or messengers of Inari, and fox figurines are usually located within or in front of Inari shrines. Exhibited with the Skinner’s Inari Shrine are a pair of wooden foxes and a small porcelain pair of kitsune. A larger (damaged) porcelain pair of kitsune, also donated with the shrine, is stored separately.

As it happens, one of Japan’s three leading Inari shrines is located in Ibaraki Prefecture; Kasama Inari Shrine in Kasama city, about 15 km west of Mito, is over 1300 years old and visited by 3.5 million people each year. The shrine is dedicated to Ukanomitama no kami, the divinity of agriculture, associated with five types of grain, cattle breeding, fishing, sericulture, commerce, and industry , The feudal lords of the region were highly oriented towards Inari veneration (Matsui 2014). It seems reasonable that the small Inari shrine removed by Nicholson from Mito had in fact been part of the Kasama Inari Jinja ko (shrine association).

Yamakawa Kikue’s family biography of late Tokugawa life in a Mito low-ranking samurai household, “Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life,” records that the household garden held an Inari shrine, dedicated to the patron deity of scholarship, Sugawa no Michizane. It would be interesting to document other instances of small scale Inari veneration in Mito and environs.

As Karen Smyers (1999) notes in her detailed ethnographic study of Inari worship, veneration of this divinity is often highly personalized and even idiosyncratic, often focusing on the polyvalent symbolic forms of the fox and the jewel. One of the wooden kitsune fox figurines associated with the shrine holds a jewel ball-like object. If possible, it would be fascinating to reconstruct some of the rich meanings this imagery held for worshipers of the shrine before it was removed from its original context of veneration.

The Shrine in its Original Context in Mito

Religious studies scholar Matsui Keisuke (2014) notes that many branch shrines of Kasami Inari Shrine were were created in the region, each organized around a specific association (ko) of worshippers, with the essence of the divinity “invited” to a specific locality through a ritual amulet; by 1904, 330 Kasama Inari-ko (associations) existed across the broad region of North Kanto. Future research may determine if this particular Mito Inari shrine was such a branch shrine with a corresponding association (ko) of dedicated worshipers.

It may simply be coincidence but 1839, the year of the shrine’s construction, was also the year of the promulgation of the “Bansha no goku” (the suppression of the society for Western studies) by the Japanese Shogunate, reacting to internal criticism of its isolationist policies. Speculatively, during this period there may have been particular encouragement to develop Shinto shrines, in keeping with the Nativist tenor of the times. The Mito daimyo during the time of Matthew Perry’s expeditions, 1852-1854, is recorded as having strongly opposed the signing of treaties with foreign powers; and the highly nationalist Mito leadership strongly supported the restoration of the Emperor in 1868.

A wooden dedication panel, associated with the shrine. records that in Meiji 22 (1889) on an auspicious day in the 12th month, this offering plaque was presented by a petitioner  小川信八, which would seem to read as Ogawa or Kogawa Shinpachi. (A museum translation lists the alternate name, “Nogawa Nobuko.”)

Perhaps this offering plaque was installed on a wall of the simple building that protected the shrine.

At some point, the collection box in front of the shrine was emptied; its contents, stored elsewhere in the Skinner Museum, appear to have consisted of about five Japanese currency bills and forty coins. Checking the dates on these items might help establish an approximate date at which the shrine ceased to used as an object of worship.

Quakerism in Mito and the Removal of the Shrine

A pamphlet by the Quaker missionary Edith Sharpless, indicates that Quaker missionization of Ibaraki began around 1889, and that the first full time mission worker was the physician and peace activist Manji Kato in 1894, joined by Gurney and Elizabeth Binford in 1899. A brick meeting house was built in 1912, and the first monthly meeting was recognized in 1917; it may be that the undated postcard photograph of the laying of the meeting house cornerstone records the construction of the structure in 1912.

As noted, in her typed label Mary Hussey implies that the shrine was removed from its original location when the Friends (Quaker) mission acquired the relevant plot of land in Mito. Since the first meeting house was evidently built in 1912, that might mean that the shrine was removed just prior to that point. However, the January 9, 1937 article in the Mount Holyoke student newspaper claims the shrine was “discovered on Mission property in Mito, Japan, by Herbert Nicholson.” Does that mean that the Mission had acquired new land under Herbert Nicholson’s auspices, shortly prior to his gift of the shrine to Dr. Hussey?

The 1937 article states that Herbert Nicholson gave the shrine to Dr. Hussey “to avoid the complications that would ensure had he forbidden its use by the natives,” which implies that he only recently discovered or encountered the shrine. This explanation perhaps accounts for why the Mission did not simply relocate the shrine to another location in the vicinity, as often happens in Japan when building construction displaces a small shrine.

Whatever the motivation, Nicholson and other mission members clearly did not wish to see the shrine destroyed and took careful steps to preserve it, albeit, it would appear, as an object of cultural heritage and not as an active site of spiritual power. Herbert’s eldest living descendant, his grandson Pete Nicholson, who lived in Nagano and Ibaraki in a mission household as a child, recalls no sense of antipathy between Shinto and Quaker practice in his experience.

The 1937 College newspaper article asserts Mr. Nicholson’s desire to remove the shrine fro active veneration by the local Japanese community. Yet I speculate that the decision to transfer the shrine to the United States may also have been conceived by the Nicholsons and the Mito Monthly Meeting as a gesture of international goodwill, at a historical juncture of mounting animosity between Japan and the United States, as the storm clouds of war loomed on the horizon. In that sense, it may have echoed the international Friendship Doll exchange of 1926, which was similarly conceived of by organizers Rev. Sidney Gulick (a Congregationalist missionary) and Shibusawa Eichi aas trust-building exercise in international tolerance and solidarity, in the period that followed the shock of Asian exclusion legislation in US immigration policy.

Herbert Victor Nicholson and Mary Inda Hussey

A life-long member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), Hebert Victor Nicholson (1892-1983) studied at Haverford College and undertook mission work in Japan from c. 1920 to 1940. He was based in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, from about 1922 onward, with occasional return visits back to the United States.

As noted, the chronology of the gift is a little unclear. Dr. Hussey’s typed label states she was presented with the shrine by Nicholson in “December 1936,: but Dr. Hussey’s article in the August 1938 Alumnae Quarlerly states she was given the shrine in “December 1935.” The January 1937 College newspaper article that that Dr. Hussey obtained the shrine “last year”, when she was on sabbatical leave. During the 1935-36 academic year Dr. Hussey i was in fact on leave at Pendle Hill, the Quaker Center for Social and Religious Studies in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Perhaps this is where she obtained the shrine from Mr. Nicholson. (Census records indicate that in 1930 Nicholson and his family were residing in New Jersey. Shipping records indicate that in August 1936 he and his family traveled from Yokohama to California, but perhaps we was in the US earlier that year, and visited Pendle Hill in December 1935.).

In any event, Herbert Nicholson was searching for a Quaker scholar who would have been inclined to make use of the Inari Shrine as a teaching device, he could hardly have found a better choice than Mary Inda Hussey. By the mid 1930s she was internationally recognized as an accomplished scholar of ancient languages and religions. She had studied at Earlham College, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Berlin and Leipzig, attaining a PhD in Assyriology from Bryn Mawr for her thesis, “Some Sumerian-Babylonian Hymns of the Berlin Collection,” published in 1907. She worked at the Harvard Semitic Museum before being hired in 1913 at Mount Holyoke, where she spent the rest of her career, taking several leaves to undertake research and teaching in the Near East, as well the 1935-36 year undertaking teaching and research at Pendle Hill.

Whatever the precise dates of the transfer, Nicholson clearly provided Professor Hussey with commentary on spiritual practices associated with the shrine and with detailed instructions on how to lock and unlock the doubled doors.

Professor Hussey appears to have used the shrine for instructional purposes in her comparative religions courses, up until her retirement in 1941. The shrine was presumably used in her courses, “The Intellectual and Cultural History of Western Asia,” and “Great Living Religions: India, China and Mohammedan countries” and “Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism,” which she offered in 1940.

The newspaper article from January 1937 and the August 1938 Alumnae Quarterly article suggests that she only recently donated the shrine to the college, and indicate that it was exhibited in Seminar Room 13 of the Williams Library. It is not clear when it was in turn transferred to the Skinner Museum. An undated photograph, perhaps from the 1960s or 1970s, shows the shrine on display within the Museum’s’ “Schoolhouse” building. It was later placed within the larger Museum “Church” building, where it remains on display.

Professor Hussey’s Later Life

After her retirement in 1941, Mary Hussey continued her detailed research on early Mesopotamian ritual incantations, based primarily on the tablet collection at Yale. She died of a heart attack at the Andover annual Friends meeting conference in 1952. Her research was completed by a colleague and published posthumously as “Early Mesopotamian Incantations and Rituals” (Yale University Press, 1985). Her planned book on global indigenous religious traditions, “Religions of Backward Peoples: A Source Book,” was never published; draft materials for this project are housed in the Mount Holyoke College Archives.

Herbert Nicholson’s later life

As international tensions between Japan and the U.S. worsened, the Nicholson family was forced to leave Mito and Japan in 1940, settling in Pasadena, California, Madeline’s home town. He served as minister at the entirely Japanese-American West Los Angeles Methodist Church, preaching in Japanese and English. He became well known durng World War II for his relief and support work for Japanese Americans detained in internment camps, and was among the nation’s most prominent advocates for the rights and welfare of Japanese Americans during the war period.

After the war, Herbert and Madeline Nicholson devoted themselves to development and reconstruction work in Japan, living in Japan during the Occupation and post Occupation period, Mitsuo Otso of the Mito Monthly meeting recalls learning conversational English from Madeline and helping Herbert with translation work in Mito around 1959. Herbert died in 1983. Herbert and Madeline’s son, Samuel Owen Nicholson, continued the family’s close connections with Japan, pursuing graduate studies in Japanese religion at the University of Michigan, and living with his family in Ibaraki Prefecture in the 1960s.

The Mito Friends Community, post 1940

Times were certainly challenging for the Mito Friends Monthly Meeting after the Nicholsons left Ibaraki for the United States in 1940. The Quaker missionary Edith Sharpless evidently remained in Mito into 1943, and must have been subject to intensive surveillance by Japanese internal security forces. The Mito Friends Meeting House was largely destroyed by Allied air raids in 1945; Mito sustained heavy damage from massive aerial bombardments on 1 August 1945, in which 836 B-29s staged the largest single raid of World War II. Surviving, burned bricks from the old Meeting House structure were used in the building’s reconstruction.

The rebuilt Meeting House was also damaged, we understand, by the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake, and has been reconstructed.

The full text of Mary Hussey’s label, which perhaps dates to the time of her retirement in 1941, is shown here:

Associated objects, donated with the shrine, include:

A wooden offering box, with two internally sloped panels creating a slot. The box contained about five currency bills and about forty coins, stored in a separate area. The box is attached to a wooden table, on which the shrine rests.

Shrine brass bell, c. 1861

A small incense stand, stored within the inner recesses of the shrine

Two kitsune fox wooden statues; the fox is a familiar of Inair, a divinity strongly associated with rice and rice cultivation. Hussey’s notes indicate that one fox is male, holding a ball the other is female.

A porcelain pair of kitsune fox figurines, significantly damaged.

Two pairs of matching brass candlesticks

Incense burner

Pair of white porcelain vases

Rice cakes presented as offerings to the shrine


MATSUI Keisuke: Geography of Religion in Japan: Religious Space, Landscape, and Behavior. Tokyo Springer Japan, 2014. (See especially Section 3.1 Characteristics of the Kasama Inari Belief Area)

Jennifer Myers, Mary Inda Hussey, typescript, Biography, undated.

Karen Smyers. The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, University of Hawaii Press. 1999.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Mitsuo Otsu, the historian of Mito Monthly Meeting in Mito, Ibaraki, Japan for his assistance. I am grateful to Peter Nicholson for sharing memories of the Nicholson family in Ibaraki Prefecture. Many thanks to Aaron Miller, Associate Curator of Visual and Material Culture, at the Mount Holyoke Art Museum and Joseph Skinner Museum, for sharing materials on the object’s history and his insights into its provenance. Thanks as well to Ellen Schattschneider (Brandeis) and Joshua Roth (MHC) for their reflections on Inari veneration and this object set. Yuko Hosoi (Hirosaki) has kindly assisted with translation.

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