Sometimes, a little event can precipitate great change. That happened during the early history of LDS missionary efforts in Japan. The event was the placement of a tiny advertisement headed “Notice to Japanese Latter-day Saints” in a Tokyo newspaper on 30 October 1945. Church member Edward L. Clissold, a United States naval officer with the American Occupation Forces in Japan, ran the ad in an attempt to contact the small group of Japanese Saints who had been without formal Church leadership in their midst since the closing of the Japan Mission in 1924.
Spotting the ad was Fujiya Nara. The news of renewed contact with Church leaders thrilled him; it was an answer to years of anticipation and prayer. To him, the news may have seemed to hallow his earlier struggles to nurture the foundling membership. It also gave him another opportunity to shepherd the Saints and help lay the foundation for the imminent return of the Church to Japan.
Fujiya Nara was born to Kenichi Nara and Kuni Takasugi in Kazuno-shi, Akita Prefecture, Japan, on 10 May 1898. At thirteen years of age, he began attending Sunday School in the Sapporo Branch. After four years of studying the Book of Mormon and Church history, he was baptized on 6 July 1915 in the Tama River in Tokyo by Japan Mission president Joseph H. Stimpson.
He began a career with Japanese National Railways in Kofu, where he attended the Kofu Branch and was ordained a deacon and later a teacher. In 1919 he moved back to Tokyo to pursue university studies. An avid student, he graduated from two well-known private universities in Japan. He was a very active Latter-day Saint as well, magnifying his calling in the Mutual Improvement Association (MIA). In 1923 he was ordained an elder, thus becoming the first native Japanese to hold that office.
On 6 April 1924 newly appointed mission president Hilton A. Robertson performed the wedding ceremony of Brother Nara and Motoko Yoshimizu. It was the first—and for many years the last—LDS marriage performed in Japan. A few months later the Japan Mission was closed, presumably due to worsening Japanese-American relations and the lack of missionary success.
A sad moment for Brother Nara came when he said farewell to President Robertson and the missionaries at Yokohama Harbor. The closing of the mission and departure of its leaders left the Japanese Saints without the guidance and support they had relied on. Now they were unable to function fully in the priesthood or to hold Church activities other than MIA meetings. Sister Nara was converted to the restored gospel but had not yet been baptized. She would wait many years for this ordinance.
It was difficult for Brother Nara to accept the fact that twenty-three years of missionary work had come to such a grim halt. The trial was great for the Saints. Yet instead of giving in to his feelings of loss and resignation, Brother Nara vigorously endeavored to unify and sustain the faith of the remaining 137 members.
Soon he drafted and circulated a prospectus to establish the MIA. In the first issue of a bulletin he published called Shuro, he referred to the MIA as “the path to light in the present darkness.” Named after the palm leaves used to herald Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Shuro was a lifeline of hope and encouragement for the scattered membership. Copies were also sent to Church headquarters in Utah to keep leaders informed.
Brother Nara proved to be a valuable asset. Having served as a clerk in the Tokyo Mission office in 1923, he knew the whereabouts of many members and organized membership lists. His travels with the railway enabled him to visit many of the members and attend to their needs.
His efforts bore fruit in 1926 when Brigham Young University president Franklin S. Harris visited Japan and formally established the MIA in Sapporo, Osaka, and Tokyo. Brother Nara was appointed to preside over the three MIA organizations. A year later the First Presidency appointed Elder Nara as the presiding elder in Japan and restored, with some limitations, activities of the priesthood and of the Church in general.
Despite Brother Nara’s fervent desire to see the Church program in Japan fully underway, progress was frustratingly slow. Near the end of 1933, Brother Nara accepted a job transfer to Manchuria that made it impossible for him to watch over the Saints as closely as he would have liked.
He returned to Tokyo several years later to find much of the city reduced to rubble and ashes. The sight was distressing. Then one day in 1945 Brother Nara found Brother Clissold’s inconspicuous message in the newspaper.
Immediately after reading the notice, he contacted Brother Clissold and presented to him a strong case for reopening missionary work in Japan. In the meantime, Brother Nara would perform more pioneering work, finding and nurturing Church members. He helped strengthen the handful of remaining members in anticipation of the official return of the Church.
That day was not far distant. The Japanese Mission was organized a few years later, on 6 March 1948, with Edward L. Clissold as president.
“I had no doubt that such a time would surely come if we kept following the commandments and praying without losing hope,” Brother Nara said years later.
In March 1948 President Clissold was pleased to find the Naras holding two regular Sunday School classes, with fifty-two attending the class taught in their own small apartment and forty-three in a class held in the home of a sympathetic nonmember. There was cause for additional joy a month later when President Clissold baptized Brother Nara’s wife, Motoko.
Today, Tokyo Temple president Russell N. Horiuchi fondly refers to Brother Nara as “a vessel of God,” for surely “God preserved him for a special purpose under such difficult times of war.” Not only did the Naras return safely from their stay in Manchuria, but they survived a 1945 air raid that destroyed their home but left them uninjured.
Brother Nara passed away on 2 July 1992 at age ninety-four. At the time of his death, there were approximately ninety-six thousand Latter-day Saints in Japan. Most of Brother Nara’s long life was consecrated to humble service—from priest to presiding elder, and from branch president to patriarch of the Japan Tokyo North Stake. He was a pioneer twice over, helping, along with his wife, to shepherd the Japanese Saints during two distressing eras of Japan’s history.