The Rising Sun of the Gospel


“The morning breaks; the shadows flee.” This prophetic hymn by Parley P. Pratt is coming true as “Zion’s standard is unfurled” in the land of the rising sun. At Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, one out of every ten among the sixty-five million persons who swarmed the grounds came to the Mormon Pavilion. Here the missionaries extended a personal welcome and met hundreds of thousands who may want to know more about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The seeds planted in Japan by Heber J. Grant seven decades ago are bearing fruit. The Church now has over 14,000 members in a country of 105 million people. A visitor comes away with a profound feeling that the freshness of the gospel is bringing new life to an ancient land. The Japanese people are vigorous and devoted. It rejuvenates one’s faith to witness a new dawn of gospel light penetrating the shadows of the Far East.

A vivid contrast between the frustrations of our early missionaries and our present successes came to my attention through Erastus Leon Jarvis, a friend now living in Provo, Utah. He is eighty-seven years old and the only surviving missionary from the group who served in Japan with Heber J. Grant, who later became the seventh president of the Church. He told about the first three missionaries who accompanied President Grant to Japan: Louis A. Kelch, Horace A. Ensign, and Alma O. Taylor. He showed me his journal entries of April 1903. Efforts to rent a meeting hall from the Young Men’s Christian Association in Yokohama first met with approval, then denial. Upon the request of President Grant for an explanation, the following letter, recorded in Elder Jarvis’s diary, was received: “When you called, I was not aware of the church with which you are connected. Our officers respectfully decline the use of the hall for the purpose for which you desire it. Yours truly, U. Sumi.”

Missionaries of that day persisted in their labors, as have all of their successors, and today the climate is changed. It was my privilege at Expo ’70 to play a brief organ recital at the Christian Pavilion—a building jointly sponsored by Protestants and Catholics. I started with “Come, Come Ye Saints,” played music of Bach and other well-known composers, and closed with a selection of LDS hymns. There were no cries of “foul!” Rather, people gathered around in friendship and mutual understanding. One young couple waited patiently for a proper moment to extend their hands; then with tears in their eyes they said, “We also belong.” That moment brought home to me the joy and pride of the Japanese Saints for their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It was my privilege to accompany the brother of Emperor Hirohito as he visited the Mormon Pavilion and witnessed the film Man’s Search for Happiness. His quiet, attentive manner was impressive. He was deeply interested as President Bernard P. Brockbank and President Edward Y. Okazaki met him and as Brother Shozo Suzuki explained the meaning of the exhibition. I have since received a request from Brother Suzuki, who is the first counselor in the Japan Central Mission presidency, for eight pictures showing him and the others with the Emperor’s brother, Mikasanomiya Takahito. He wants them for the books of remembrance of his eight children. “This is a high honor,” he wrote, “rarely extended to Japanese people, and never before given to any members of my family, to be pictured with Japan’s royal family.” The Church has come a long way in public esteem since the refusal to use that meeting hall in 1903.

My visit to Japan came by invitation of General Superintendent David Lawrence McKay to represent the Sunday School general board at the first regional conference in the Orient. To gain firsthand experience in our Sunday School, I visited the Third Ward of Tokyo Stake.

As we visited each class, many students were studying the gospel with books open. Visual aids were in evidence, especially in the Junior Sunday School.

I later discovered that the library program is yet to be initiated in Tokyo Stake, but stake superintendent Shuichi Yaganuma is vigorously implementing every program of the Sunday School so that all members and investigators might learn the gospel. For the regional conference, he and members of the Tokyo Stake board had taken the film No Greater Call and in one week had made a complete translation and recorded the dialogue. At the meeting they played it on a tape recorder in full synchronization with the film. This determination to overcome problems characterizes their whole effort to infuse their Sunday School with vitality.

At Osaka, President and Sister Okazaki of the Japan Central Mission invited me to conduct a teacher’s workshop and visit the Okamachi Branch Sunday School. Sunday is not a Christian holiday in Japan, and heavy traffic on the elevated freeway between Kobe and Osaka caused us to be late. We arrived just as classes were beginning. Without ceremony we entered each room, and with camera in hand I was able to capture glimpses of Japanese teaching that remain indelible upon my mind. Some of them appear on these pages.

As I watched the animated countenance of Sister Mieko Aki, I felt a radiance that was captivating. I turned sideways to see how the youthful students were receiving her message. They were enraptured. Quietly I turned my camera in their direction, and with no posing or comment, I was able to capture on film what I consider the best Sunday School picture I have ever taken. The complete absorption of these beautifully modeled Oriental faces prompted a colleague at Brigham Young University to say, “I was among the first troops to enter Japan during World War II. I never saw faces like these. There is a light in these eyes that I never saw at that time. It is the light of the gospel.”

As I studied the facial expression of Sister Aki, I sensed both a desire to communicate the meaning of the scripture written upon the blackboard and a joy in the response of her class as they grasped its significance. These faces tell more effectively than words how students and teachers interact when truth and effective teaching unite to illuminate lives.

There was another remarkable teacher in this branch who was lighting the way for others, though he was blind. As we peeked into one class, I saw Brother Kiyoshi Ito teaching a lesson with his briefcase closed. We met later for an interview.

In perfect English he said, “I have always been blind. I have never seen anything except through my ears and fingers. I started to learn the piano when I was in the fourth grade. For piano there is music in braille, and I learned from that. I would read the braille with one hand and play with the other until I had it memorized. It took me longer to learn music than it would for you or other people.”

He told how he joined the Church: “I am now thirty-five years old. Back in 1950 I met an American lady missionary on the train. Her name was Ruth K. Needham, and her companion was a Sister Clark. They told me how wonderful the MIA and the Sunday School were. I was baptized in 1951.

“I was an organist from 1955 to 1970 in many branches. This year I was released and called to be a teacher in the Family Home Evening course of the Sunday School.”

I asked him how he prepared his lessons. He said, “Well, that is the problem. You can read the Bible and other scriptures easily, but I can’t. When I was called to this job, I refused once because I thought it was too difficult, but I made up my mind to do my best. I prepare by having my wife make a tape. She records from the books. I listen to the tape every day. For example, for next week my wife may record tonight and I will begin listening tomorrow. My wife reads the scriptures to me when necessary. She reads the lessons and I listen and make notes in braille from that.”

“Do you enjoy teaching?” I asked.

“I have been teaching since March. I did not enjoy teaching the first months because I did not know how far I could go without looking at the textbook as do people who can see. I asked my wife to pray with me and I received help from the Lord, I know. Now I enjoy teaching. I enjoy the lessons. They help me in raising my own child.”

From these simple, direct statements, one senses a deep and spiritual relationship between Brother Ito and his wife, Yoshi. I inquired how they met and married. He started to tell me about the district conferences held in Kobe four times a year “where we got together and had a good time in MIA and Sunday School.” Then he said, “You should ask her.” She did not speak English, so others told the story. This devoted wife and mother was moved upon by the Spirit, after one of those conferences, to write Brother Ito and tell him that she wished to help him throughout his life. They were later married and sealed in the temple. They have a daughter, now ten years old.

He said that he had earned his living for ten years playing piano in a nightclub, but that he had resigned this position because it forced him to break the Sabbath. Now he teaches English and piano in his home.

To my inquiry as to how he learned English, he said, “By the radio. For twenty years I have listened to a program on English conversation. I really wanted to speak English. I love English. I wanted to learn it as a child, but I didn’t have enough money to pay for lessons. There was no way except to follow the radio.” His English pronunciation was superior to that of many other native Japanese.

When asked how he learned to play our hymns, he said, “I listen.”

Brother Ito, in his visual blindness, has learned to see great truth and to find great happiness because he has learned to listen—not only to teachers of English on the radio, not only to the music he wants to play, but also to his wife and to two lady missionaries who met him on a train and opened a whole new world of light and love through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the valiant spirit of the Japanese we see a fulfillment of that declaration of Parley P. Pratt: “The dawning of a brighter day majestic rises on the world.” There is a new light in Japan. It is the light of Christ’s gospel shining in happy faces and bringing peace and goodwill to men.

[illustration] Art by Steven Haslam and Merrill Gogan

[photos] Warmth and enthusiasm shine through when Sister Mieko Aki teaches her Sunday School class in the Okamachi Branch, Osaka, Japan. The success of her teaching is reflected in the faces of her students: Shigeru Mizoguchi, Mieko Kojya, Chieko Ishimaru, Yumiko Amagase, and Junko Kuwano. (Photography by Lorin F. Wheelwright.)

Dr. Wheelwright, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University, has been a member of the Sunday School general board since 1956 and was associate editor of the Instructor.