Japanma was born in c.1902[a] and was one of the first group of Aboriginal people to arrive at the Roper River Mission (now Ngukurr). Aboriginal people sought refuge at the mission following systematic massacres by the organised hunting gangs of the Eastern and African Cold Storage Company.
Arriving to the mission as a young man, he quickly took a great interest in Christianity and was baptised on 11 May 1913 at the mission's first baptismal service at the age of 11.
When the Roper River Mission flooded in 1916, Reverend Alf Dyer recorded a humorous account of Japanma, ‘floating [by] on a large case reading a book without any apparent concern’. Japanma went on to become a key leader in the church in Ngukurr, being the first recognised Aboriginal evangelist at the Mission.
Japanma was of great value to the work of the European Missionaries as a translator, as almost none of them had knowledge of Aboriginal languages. By 1939, there were roughly 75 Aboriginal people on the Mission, mostly children and young people, and an additional 18 who were then classified as ‘half-castes’.
The Mission flooded again in January 1940 and while no lives were lost, the mission was destroyed. It was rebuilt five miles upstream at Picnic Point and in 1941, Helen Alder took over the work of Japanma, freeing him to engage in itinerant evangelism at the surrounding cattle stations. James was an avid reader and could recite huge slabs of the Bible by heart.
Japanma married Minnie McLoud, an Aboriginal woman from Borraloola.
In 1953, Japanma was one of four Roper River men chosen for possible ordination. A controversy over training requirements and a requirement for six years of theological away from the mission prevented Japanma's ordination.
- There are discrepancies regarding Japanma's date of birth. The Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography lists it as c.1902, but records from the National Archives of Australia indicates a request to change Japanma's date of birth from 1898 to 1893.
- "Roper River Mission Social Services 1960-67". Centre for Indigenous Family History Studies. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- Knoll, Wayne D. (14 September 2011). "Christians Of The Australian Clay: I- J- K- L- Surname List". Christians Of The Australian Clay. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
- "JAPANMA, James (1885-1962)". Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography. Evangelical History Association of Australia. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- Nichols, Alan (2007). Escape for West Papua : how and why refugees came to Australia. Brunswick East, Vic.: Acorn Press. pp. 135–6. ISBN 9780908284672.
- Cole, Keith (1971). A History of the Church Missionary Society of Australia. Victoria: Church Missionary Historical Publications. p. 180. ISBN 978-0909821029.
- Harris, John. "A New Story in an Old Land The First Aboriginal Evangelists" (PDF). Bush Church Aid. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- Powell, edited by David Carment, Robyn Maynard, Alan (1990). Northern Territory dictionary of biography. Casuarina, NT: NTU Press. p. 157. ISBN 094907022X.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- "James Japanma". Find a Grave. Retrieved 25 November 2017.