Japan: Growing Light in the East


In a country where religious tradition is firmly ingrained, a growing body of Latter-day Saints is demonstrating how the gospel strengthens individuals and families.

Mikio Nakamura has prepared himself well to teach the gospel. A returned missionary who grew up in a Latter-day Saint home, he is fluent and articulate in three languages—Japanese, Russian (learned as a missionary in Vladivostok), and English (polished with American missionary companions). His intelligence and handsomeness both command attention.

But still it is difficult to share the gospel with his friends who are not members. Their questions about his beliefs are usually intellectually motivated. They listen politely to what he says when there is an opportunity to discuss beliefs, but once they realize the commitment his faith involves, they usually lose interest rapidly.

Mikio’s father, Nobuyuki Nakamura, is owner of a textile company and bishop of the Kichijoji Ward, Tokyo Japan Stake. He says opportunities to share the gospel with neighbors and coworkers come infrequently. These situations must be delicately handled or the door may be shut tightly and locked against further opportunities, Bishop Nakamura says. Religious beliefs in Japan are a sensitive, personal topic, even though few Japanese are deeply committed to any particular religious faith.

This is one of the major challenges for the Church in Japan. While it is common for a Japanese citizen to be married by a Shinto priest, espouse Confucian ethics, and be buried or cremated according to Buddhist practice, many are never deeply touched by religious belief. And despite the high visibility of religious symbols and landmarks, Japan has been largely a secular country for hundreds of years.

This points to a major challenge for the Church. In a country where only 1 percent of the population is Christian and Latter-day Saints account for about 10 percent of that number, bringing the Church out of obscurity is no easy task.

The problems encountered by Akiko Ohta, public affairs director for the Fukuoka stake, are typical. It was difficult to place stories in the news media about the building of the temple in Fukuoka and preparations for its opening because newspapers and broadcast outlets commonly refuse to run items they see as possibly promoting religious groups. (In 1997, for example, Japanese media covered the reenactment of the Latter-day Saint pioneer trek across the central United States without ever mentioning the name of the Church.) The extreme behavior of some religious groups does get news coverage in Japan, however, and as a result, religious groups from outside the country, including Christian groups, generally have a bad name in Japan.

Yet despite these difficulties, the future of the Church in Japan seems bright. There are signs of change in Japanese society that may open new doors, and the members themselves are sending forth a light of faith that is becoming ever more visible.

Beginnings

The first Latter-day Saint missionaries to Japan were sent by President Lorenzo Snow in 1901, with Elder Heber J. Grant of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as their leader. Missionaries labored in Japan for more than 20 years, but there were still fewer than 200 Japanese members when the mission was closed in 1924. For the next two decades, missionary work in Japanese was carried out among Americans of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii, and when the Church reentered Japan after World War II, Church leaders called on some of those who had preached the gospel in Hawaii to serve as missionaries and mission presidents.

Members who were baptized in the 1940s or 1950s often say there was a blessing in their country’s defeat in the war—the gospel was brought back to Japan. Latter-day Saint military personnel stationed in Japan helped reintroduce it. (Among these was a young pilot from Utah named Boyd K. Packer.) These military personnel and the first missionaries who followed them found a small core of members who had endured in faith since the 1920s. They also found a few who were ready to hear the gospel.

Like other Japanese, Toshiro Yoshizawa, who served in the army during the war, had been taught that the emperor was divine and that the gods would protect their country as it pursued its appointed destiny. When those beliefs proved false, Toshiro embarked on a quest to find out who God really was and what was the true destiny of mankind.

In the street one day he encountered two young Americans holding a meeting; they were among the first LDS missionaries called to serve in Japan after the war. One of them, Elder Ray Price, spoke with respect of the service Japanese soldiers had given their country and talked of how all men and women are brothers and sisters and ought to treat each other with love. This message drew Toshiro to gospel study and eventually to conversion. He and his wife, Midori, baptized in 1953, are among Japanese pioneers whose service helped sustain the Church after its postwar establishment. Brother Yoshizawa went on to be a branch president, district president, counselor to four mission presidents, stake president, and mission president before being called as patriarch of the Fukuoka Japan Stake in 1986. Sister Yoshizawa has served as a teacher in the Sunday School and in numerous Relief Society teaching and leadership callings, often holding several at the same time in the early years.

“There Are Rich Resources”

The Church that was so small in Japan has grown to more than 114,000 members today. Nearly three-quarters of the members are single, but this ratio is not reflected in Church meetings; it appears that about two-thirds of those attending are husbands, wives, and children, while about one-third are single.

Despite a troubling economic downturn in Japan in recent years, most members enjoy the blessings of prosperity. Streets in large cities are clogged—sometimes literally choked off—by mostly late-model cars and large trucks. Everyone from business people to schoolchildren seems to carry a tiny cellular telephone, and many families have sophisticated television sets, entertainment centers, and telephone/fax machines in their apartments. In major cities, the vast majority live in apartment buildings. The price of a single-family dwelling in a city like Tokyo is out of reach of all but the wealthy.

Yet this prosperity comes at a high price. Lights are ablaze in Tokyo office buildings late into the evening because many people are still working; those who do not work extra hours may be seen as not diligent enough in their jobs. (As a result, notes Bishop Nakamura of the Kichijoji Ward, the only time he can get ward leaders together during the week for a Priesthood Executive Committee meeting is at 10:00 P.M., after all of them come home.) The high cost of living is undoubtedly a factor in this national devotion to work. To pay the high costs of housing and schooling for their children, large numbers of Japanese wives, including Latter-day Saints, now work at least part time outside the home.

Despite the difficulties, members of the Asia North Area Presidency are optimistic about the growth and strength of the Church. “If we look back to where we were a year or two ago, the trend lines are very encouraging,” says Elder L. Lionel Kendrick of the Seventy, Area President. Efforts in response to priesthood direction have raised the retention rate for new converts to nearly 75 percent. The number of baptisms resulting from member referrals is up and continuing to climb. Leadership is strong at stake levels in both priesthood and auxiliary organizations; the challenge is to build depth at ward and branch levels. Per capita, missionary work does better outside big cities, “but we’re getting better in the cities too,” says Elder Kendrick.

Elder L. Edward Brown, First Counselor in the Area Presidency, notes that more referrals are coming from members, including the less active. Elder E. Ray Bateman, Second Counselor, says members are so diligent in carrying out assignments that “every task they put their minds to is as close to perfection as they can make it.”

“While we have challenges, there are rich resources,” Elder Kendrick comments. The members in Japan “are wonderful people to work with.”

Members of the Area Presidency see a continuing effort to support and teach principles set forth in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” as one way to help the Church come out of obscurity in Japan. Church leaders and members agree that both individuals and families in Japan need something to shore them up against undercutting influences of modern society. An entire nation needs the Lord’s solution—the gospel.

Those same Church leaders and members also agree that the best way to spread the gospel and overcome negative stereotypes may be simply to live the commandments and let others see the effect on their lives and families. Most members say it was the example of other Latter-day Saints that brought them to the gospel. If you ask how doors can be opened more easily for the gospel in Japan, the answer is invariably the same: by the example of members.

“The Nail That Sticks Up”

It is especially important, priesthood and auxiliary leaders say, to teach youth of the strength found in living the gospel of Jesus Christ. While drugs, alcohol, and immorality do not seem to be significant problems for LDS youth in Japan, in their schooling young people face tremendous pressures that work against Church activity.

Mandatory after-school activities and studying extend the school day well beyond classroom hours. (The government has recently taken steps to end half-day sessions on Saturdays.) Required club or sports activities are often held on Sundays, and sometimes there are also Sunday study sessions because of the pressure on teens to do well on high school or university entrance exams. Young people who skip school activities or study sessions to go to church can hurt themselves educationally and socially. It is painful to stand out due to lack of participation; an old adage is often cited: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Early-morning seminary may be the only contact youth have with the Church when school activities dominate their Sundays. But many LDS students face a weekday schedule like that of Yuka Kouchi, Osaka Ward, Osaka Japan Stake: seminary at 6:15 A.M., then school at 8:00 A.M., club activities at 3:30 P.M., and on certain days a part-time job preparing lunches and clerking in a store from 6:00 to 10:00 P.M. Yuka is one of few who holds a job; other students fill the evening with studying or school activities. Most don’t get home before 9:00 P.M.

If she could change anything, Yuka would like a little more time to help her mother in the home, and maybe more time to listen to her favorite music—or to sleep.

Atsuko Yamashita, Young Women president in the Maebaru Ward, Fukuoka stake, is impressed with the strength of the youth. In 1999, the youth of her branch asked for the opportunity to visit the Tokyo Temple to do baptisms for the dead. Their three-day visit in Tokyo included chances to sightsee and have fun, but the young people kept as their first priority performing temple ordinances each evening and getting a taste of the training at the Missionary Training Center.

Sister Yamashita found the gospel herself while in high school and has come to love the Book of Mormon. “It doesn’t matter where we live, we received the restored gospel through Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The blessings of the gospel are the same wherever we are.” She is grateful for a husband who supports her in her Church service even though he is not a member.

Alone in the Gospel

Not all women who marry outside the Church are so fortunate. One sister recalls the serious problems she encountered with her in-laws, strong in another religion, when they learned she was an active Latter-day Saint. They threatened to end any relationship with her. Her husband took their side, and she did not attend Church meetings for several years. But when she and her husband were no longer living with his family, a caring Relief Society president and loving sisters in the ward helped bring her back. Now she serves in a leadership calling, trying to reach out to other sisters.

There still are difficulties in the home, however. Working hard to support the family, her husband feels that he is fulfilling all the obligations of a husband and father. But his influence has been absent in some areas where it is badly needed, his wife says. Their son is becoming rebellious, and the father is beginning to see that he needs to change. One particular missionary has touched the man’s life, helping him make progress, and they are working through issues of religion in the family, she says. This sister expresses gratitude for gospel teachings that help her understand “we can work the problems out.”

There is a growing realization in Japan that fathers must take a more active role in their families, a realization that would have met strong resistance four or five years ago, says Koichi Hayase, bishop of the Hachioji First Ward, Tokyo Japan West Stake. Establishing personal priorities is one focus of the management seminars that Bishop Hayase teaches in his professional role. “I teach them to think, deep down in their core, what is important to them.” He doesn’t tell participants that the answer will come to them through the light of Christ—but it does. “By the end of two days, they know what I’m talking about, even if they don’t know how to express it.” Many male participants tell him privately after the seminars that they’re determined to refocus their lives, putting more emphasis on family relationships. The number of women in management positions is growing in Japan, Bishop Hayase says, and this has strengthened the impetus for finding balance between family and career roles.

Faithful Latter-day Saints are well prepared to reinforce family values in Japanese society, the bishop says. But, “I think we’ve got to become bold. We are not bold enough in sharing the gospel.”

Leading the Family

In this light, many Japanese priesthood holders speak of the joy they have discovered in fatherhood as they put family above material things or advancements in the world. Masahido Sumiyoshi is one example. While he was in the process of helping rear three children, he came to a dual realization: it was his responsibility to help the children get back to Heavenly Father, and it was also his opportunity to go with them. As mission leader in the Kitakyushu Ward of the Fukuoka stake, he sees the value of that knowledge while he notes his peers are often too caught up in their jobs to give time to their families.

His wife, Katsuko, is glad that their children were raised in a home with a father who understands the worth of the gospel. She knows well the power of parental example. Her parents were among the pioneers of the Church in Hiroshima, joining in 1957. Now her parents live with her younger brother, Satoshi Nishihara, and his family.

Satoshi Nishihara has followed the parental example of service. Currently high priests group leader in the Ushiku Ward, Abiko Japan Stake, he works as a seminary coordinator for the Church Educational System. He was called as president of the stake in Hiroshima at age 29, and later served as president of the mission in Osaka. The elder Nishiharas, Yoshio and Kikuno, have served two full-time proselyting missions together—the first one shortly after Satoshi returned from his full-time mission at 22—and four temple missions.

Yoshio and Kikuno Nishihara modeled what they preached as their children were growing up. Satoshi remembers well an argument with his mother when he was young; it was resolved when she asked him to kneel and pray with her. That was a sweet learning experience. Now it comes naturally for Satoshi to counsel and pray with his own wife, Noriko, and their children in handling family business. One recent decision was handled this way after a family fast and prayer; as he listened to his wife and children express their feelings, it became clear to him what the family should do.

Satoshi and Noriko have five children, an unusually large family in a country where the average is a little over one child per couple. Sister Nishihara says she finds it difficult to imagine raising a family of any size without the benefit of gospel teachings, but especially five children whose needs and challenges became ever more complex as they grew up.

Brother Nishihara says life tends to be simpler as one views it through the lens of the gospel. Too many people let the pressure of the world trouble them when they need not, he believes. Once they forget themselves and look outward, they discover many useful and rewarding things they had not realized they could do with their lives. “When we are helping other people, we often forget the problems in our own lives.” With that perspective, he and his wife have consciously tried to involve their children in service, to teach them that when they live the gospel and share it liberally, the blessings of the Lord will take care of all other needs. “When you reach out to other people, it always brings joy.”

Japanese members say many of their countrymen seem to be seeking for some anchor in their lives without being able to put a name to their need. Latter-day Saints feel they have found what so many others are seeking—this joy in the gospel that Satoshi Nishihara talks about. In their lives and examples, the Japanese Saints may hold the key to sharing this joy with their countrymen.

Japan Today

Members: More than 114,000

Stakes: 31

Wards: 175

Missions: 8

Mission districts: 19

Branches: 142

Missionaries: Approximately 1,000, about 18 percent Japanese

Temples: Tokyo and Fukuoka

[photos] Photography by Don L. Searle, except as noted

[photos] Left: Atsuko Yamashita (top) of Maebaru; Daisuke Hirota, Kyoto; Toshiko Yamashita, Fukuoka; Masako Horii, Osaka; Makoto Fukuda, Tokyo.

[photos] Below: Toshiro Yoshizawa and wife, Midori, pioneers in the Church in Fukuoka. Right: Nobuyuki Nakamura, center, with wife, Mywako, and son, Mikio, members of the Kichijoji Ward, Tokyo. Background: Fish in a pond at a historic site in Dazaifu.

[photos] Above: The new Fukuoka Japan Temple brings the eternal blessings available through temple ordinances closer to members in the western part of the country. (Fukuoka Japan Temple by Kozo Furoi.) Background: Historic Kinkaku-ji.

[photo] The Hisashi Taira family of Fukuoka: mother, Shinko, front left, with twins, Mami and Mino; son, Makoto, and father, Hisashi, rear. Not shown: daughter Sayaka, away at school, and son Kaname, serving a mission.

[photos] Below: Ayako (left), Masanao Morimoto, Fukuoka, with the youngest of four children. Center: Family home evening with the Takamatsus, Fukuoka. Bottom: Yoshie Sumiya, Kitakyushu.

[photos] Below: Dipping water from a bowl for a Sunday School lesson on oil for our lamps, Tokyo. Center and bottom: Seminary class, Osaka.

[photos] Below: Children at the Yokohama stake’s summer fair for members and friends. Foreground: Mieko (left) and Hiroshi Aki, Osaka. Background: High-rise buildings, downtown Osaka, seen from upper level of historic Osaka Castle.

[photo] Three generations in the Church: the Nishihara family of Ushiku. Kikuno and Yoshio, center, baptized in 1957, were pioneers in the Hiroshima area.