Encounter at the Stamp Machine: A Great Kind of Missionary Story


As my family and I were in Tokyo, Japan, preparing to return home from a six-month research tour in Matsumoto, my wife, Gayle, happened to thumb through a copy of Japan Echo, a compilation of articles from Japanese magazines translated into English.

She was attracted to a piece entitled “God and the Vending Machine,” written by Osamu Matsuda, a professor at the National Institute for Japanese Literature.

Mr. Matsuda wrote:

“To be quite blunt, I dislike … vending machines. I distrust them. …

“Thus it was with a grave sense of foreboding that I departed alone on a sixty-one-day journey that was to begin in America, birthplace of the vending machine. Confused, too, by the different denominations, each encounter with the machines was a new trial as, fumbling yet pushed on by the waiting line, I inserted the coins and awaited the machine’s verdict.

“There seemed to be a positive dearth of post offices in America. Until I realized that I could have things mailed from the hotel, I wandered around early-morning San Francisco clutching my few picture postcards and forlornly inquiring, ‘Could you tell me where the post office is?’ …

“Having an hour to kill [at the New Atlanta Airport] while waiting for a connecting flight between San Francisco and Mexico City, I spied, there in a far-off corner, stamp machines. Yes, stamp machines.

“But wait! Now is no time to be hasty. Read the instructions once, twice, three times. Then in with the money. Click, clack, silence. Nothing. Pound the machine. Kick it. Tilt! But to no avail. Even putting in more money could not provoke a response from the machine.”

Mr. Matsuda then told of how he had sought assistance from a policeman who said, “‘Let me see you put the money in.’ We checked to be sure I had the right change and put it in, yet not a click or whimper of thanks did we get from the machine. ‘Now what?’ My voice was rising. … ‘What am I to do?’ The policeman shrugs his shoulders. ‘Is this how America treats the lonely traveler?’

“‘What’s wrong? You’re Japanese, aren’t you?’ Turning at being addressed in fluent Japanese, I found that the vending machine, the policeman, and I had attracted a considerable crowd. The person who had spoken to me was one of a group of four or five youths. In the mid-September lobby, these casually clean-cut youths seemed as though they had just come out of the locker room after a game of football. Indeed, I could almost smell the soap and shampoo of their showers. As I explained my plight again, he simply nodded and put some coins in the next vending machine. As I dumbfoundedly watched the stamps coming out one after the other, he pressed them into my hands. ‘Here. Use these.’ ‘But I can’t accept these from you.’ ‘Please. I was in Japan for two years, as a missionary. Have a good trip.’ And then he strode off, leaving me a broad smile and this memory of kindness from a youth of 25 or 26, hair the color of flax and eyes of blue, dressed in a sportshirt and white jeans.

“Why didn’t I ask his name? Or what church he was with? …

“There was not the least trace of artificiality in the youth’s smile. Just a friendly wave and he was gone. Even now I remember him. Would I, for instance, extend the same helping hand to a foreigner lost at Tokyo’s busy Shibuya Station? This is the difference between us. While it may be too facile to call it ‘God,’ this much is certain: Along with the gods of materialism, the old God, too, is alive and well in America.” (Japan Echo, 1975, 2:135–37; used with permission.)

The impact of this experience sufficiently motivated Mr. Matsuda to write of it for a very intellectual magazine. It was so impressive to the Japanese that it was reprinted not only in Japan Echo but also in two other magazines.

We suspected that the young man who had helped him was a Latter-day Saint, and we decided that we wanted to meet Mr. Matsuda and introduce him to the Church.

Through a contact made by Brother Keichi Takamoto of the Tokyo Third Ward, we were able to find Mr. Matsuda’s telephone number, and on Christmas Eve I called him.

After wishing him a Merry Christmas, I told him that I had a good idea who the young man was who helped him. I told him that at that time my own son, David, was serving a mission in Japan. Mr. Matsuda was very receptive and it was he who suggested that we might meet so that he could learn more. It so happened that he lived only ten minutes away from where we were staying, and so with Brother Takamoto and two missionaries we set out to meet him the next morning. What better way to spend Christmas Day than to visit a man in search of a church that sends out such young men?

We were scheduled to leave Japan that evening, and so my wife and I had to say our farewells. We thanked Mr. Matsuda for meeting with us, and he in turn thanked us for finding him. The last we saw of him, he was deep in conversation with two “clean-cut youths.” We could “almost smell the soap and shampoo.”

We wonder how those conversations turned out. We also wonder if a reader of this article was one day passing through New Atlanta Airport and came across a befuddled Japanese professor somewhat upset at a stamp vending machine. Did you know a whole nation of people was watching you?

[illustration] Illustrated by Ron Stucki

Brother Farnsworth is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and teaches the gospel doctrine class in the Edgemont Fifth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.