Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi: Steadfast amid Change


October, 1977. With the postlude organ music filling the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square, Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi, newly sustained as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, stood near an entrance greeting acquaintances. One of them, a stake president from Japan, introduced a friend of his, R. Gordon Porter, a stake president in Salt Lake City.

“President Porter,” said Elder Kikuchi, “didn’t you serve a mission to Japan?”

“Well, yes, I did,” replied President Porter, wondering how Elder Kikuchi knew.

They were still shaking hands, Elder Kikuchi staring closely at President Porter. “You confirmed me a member of the Church.”

Incredulous, President Porter thought back to his time in Japan. “It had been almost twenty years,” he later said, “but as we shook hands I could suddenly remember that home in Hokkaido, and I could see that young gakusei [student] standing at the door as my senior companion, Delmont Law, talked with him.”

This meeting, across two decades and thousands of miles, is an apt symbol of how the gospel has affected the life of Yoshihiko Kikuchi, taking him from one unexpected transition to another. Through all those changes, he has remained both faithful and humble.

Elder Kikuchi’s background hardly made him a likely candidate for conversion to the Church. Born in 1941, he was raised in the rural “snow country” of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Latter-day Saint missionaries had left Japan more than a decade before his birth, finding little success in a country steeped in tradition. During the 1930s, as Japan grew increasingly militaristic and anti-American, the last traces of Church organization virtually vanished.

Then, five months after Yoshihiko was born, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was bombed. And shortly before the end of the war, Yoshihiko’s father—serving in the Japanese military—died in an American bombing raid over Japan. Not many would have expected a boy in Yoshihiko’s situation ever to join an “American” church.

“I was prejudiced toward Americans because of my father’s death,” says Elder Kikuchi. “When I answered the door that day (in 1958) and saw two Americans—all bundled up in their hats and overcoats—I naturally told them, ‘No, thank you.’”

Even meeting the elders when he did would not normally have been a possibility because Yoshihiko should have been in school. But he was recuperating from an illness. A hardworking boy, he had been going to school at night and rising at 4 A.M. to work so he could help his mother support the family. This rigorous schedule completely exhausted him, and he collapsed one day on the job. After his release from the hospital, he was staying with his uncle, and was home alone when Elder Law and Elder Porter knocked on the door.

Just as Yoshihiko would have normally been elsewhere that day—either in school or at work—the elders normally would have been taking the day off because it was their preparation day. But they had not found many investigators in recent weeks, and were out going door-to-door because Elder Law had felt inspired to do so.

Elder Law persisted when Yoshihiko declined to talk to them, saying he and Elder Porter had an important message that would only take a few minutes. “My health crisis had put me in a position of seeking God,” Elder Kikuchi reminisces, “and I decided to let them come in. They told me the Joseph Smith story. I was very impressed.”

“Yoshihiko struck me as an exceptional young man,” says Brother Law, who now lives in Mapleton, Utah. “I knew he was ready for the gospel.”

“I’m grateful the elders went the extra mile,” Elder Kikuchi comments. Today, his appreciation for the work of the missionaries is often expressed. “I want to tell American Saints how much I appreciate my testimony,” he says. “I especially want the older brothers and sisters to know that I deeply appreciate the legacy—and heritage—they have preserved. I have met members of the Church in Bend, Oregon; Salmon, Idaho; Tooele, Utah; and many other places. These wonderful people live ‘common’ lives, attending church each week faithfully. They may wonder if they are really contributing to the kingdom of God. I want to assure them that they are. They are faithful individuals who raise their righteous sons and daughters and send them on missions. I want them to know they are doing a marvelous, marvelous work for the Lord.”

After his own contact with the missionaries, Elder Kikuchi turned out to be a “golden investigator,” eagerly receiving lessons and even coming to the meetinghouse when he did not have an appointment. In the spring of 1958, just a few weeks after meeting the elders, he was baptized by Elder Law. The date was April 6—the anniversary of the organization of the Church.

Three years later Yoshihiko himself was a missionary. While serving on the Japanese island of Kyushu, he had an experience which proved to be pivotal in his life. Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, visited Japan and spoke at a missionary zone conference. Yoshihiko was the only Japanese elder present.

“We had a testimony meeting, and I was the last one to bear my testimony,” Elder Kikuchi relates. “I stood and began to speak in Japanese. Suddenly, a very warm spirit came over me and, without knowing what I was saying, I started speaking in English. I didn’t know what I said. But I remember the beautiful feeling I felt.”

After he went back to his seat, Elder Hinckley stood and pronounced a special blessing on Elder Kikuchi. From that time he took an active interest in learning English, believing it would be important in the future in his work in the kingdom. He carried a transistor radio with him often, imitating the voices he heard over the United States Armed Services radio network. “Without the help of the Lord, 1 couldn’t have learned it. I thank him for helping me,” he says.

His fluency in English increased, and in the early 1970s, while he was serving in the Tokyo Stake presidency, he often acted as interpreter for General Authorities speaking at stake conferences.

“I remember ‘Kikuchi Kyodai’ [Brother Kikuchi] quite well,” says one returned missionary. “He would stand at the pulpit with the visiting General Authority, always listening intently and then giving the interpretation with the same emphasis and feeling of the speaker. You knew he never took it lightly.”

Among the Church leaders for whom Elder Kikuchi performed this service were President Joseph Fielding Smith (when a group of Japanese Saints visited Salt Lake City), President N. Eldon Tanner, President Spencer W. Kimball, President Hinckley, and many other General Authorities. But of all Elder Kikuchi’s associations with General Authorities, the one that began in that small zone conference in the early 1960s has been the most frequent and long-lasting. President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Kikuchi met time and again as President Hinckley made frequent trips to Japan; he has now been there nearly forty times.

Elder Kikuchi served a three-and-one-half-year mission, which included one six-month extension as a full-time proselyting missionary and another twelve-month extension as a labor missionary. Less than two weeks after returning home in 1964, he married Toshiko Koshiya. She had joined the Church when she was young—after two years of study—and she had met Yoshihiko not long after his baptism.

With Yoshihiko’s marriage came another key transition in his life—the young couple moved from the quiet, traditional area of northern Japan to the fast-moving, “western” metropolis of Tokyo. Yoshihiko was soon a husband, a new father, a university student in business psychology, later a full-time employee of a cookware firm, and branch president of West Branch, which later became Tokyo Third Ward. He calls this time the greatest growing period of his life.

Quiet and unassuming, Sister Kikuchi recalls those days with fondness: “We had many blessings. Yoshihiko was working so hard every minute.” Indeed, the drive he had shown as a youngster had not diminished; he was now getting about four hours’ sleep a night. “He never complained,” continues Sister Kikuchi, not mentioning her own hard work and faithfulness, both crucial during that time.

As he reached his early thirties, Elder Kikuchi seemed to have finally found a settled life-style: he and Toshiko were the parents of three daughters and one son; he was serving as president of the Tokyo Stake, with the family still residing in “West Branch”; and he had an excellent job as a regional sales manager for all of Japan in an international firm.

But another transition was just ahead.

One day in 1977, Elder Kikuchi received a telephone call from Elder Adney Y. Komatsu of the First Quorum of the Seventy—then serving in Tokyo as Area Supervisor—telling him that Brother Arthur Haycock, President Kimball’s personal secretary, had been trying to get in touch with him. The same day, about midnight, he received a telephone call from the office of the First Presidency. President Kimball came to the telephone and asked about his health and family, then asked if he was planning to travel to Salt Lake City for the October General Conference. No, replied Elder Kikuchi, who said he was scheduled to attend conference once a year and had come just six months earlier.

“Can you come nevertheless?” asked President Kimball. “I’d like to see you. When you arrive at Salt Lake, please contact me.”

He received no further information.

Half wondering and half worrying why he was being called to Salt Lake, Elder Kikuchi made frantic arrangements to leave, only to find his passport had expired a few days earlier. This was followed by missed airplanes (a problem the Kikuchis never had before or since), his wife’s lost purse, and a series of frustrations that caused Elder and Sister Kikuchi to arrive late, missing an afternoon appointment with the Church president. They stayed with friends that night, the long wait continuing.

Early the next morning they finally met with President Kimball, who very kindly inquired about them and their family. Then he announced why they had been asked to come to Salt Lake.

“Brother Kikuchi—the Lord has called you to serve as one of the General Authorities.”

Astonished, Elder Kikuchi found he could hardly speak.

“President Kimball,” he gasped, “I’m sorry, but could you repeat that?”

“The Lord has called you to serve as one of the General Authorities of the Church.”

Recalling that poignant moment, Elder Kikuchi says that he and Sister Kikuchi “cried and cried. We were just so overwhelmed.”

Yoshihiko Kikuchi thus became the first native-born Japanese General Authority, joining his friend and associate, Elder Komatsu, who was born in Hawaii of Japanese ancestry.

Though Elder Kikuchi willingly and gladly accepted this call from a prophet, he still had qualms about his ability to fulfill it.

“I never expected to be called to such a heavy and high responsibility,” he said in his first general conference address. “I’m still asking myself and the Lord, ‘Why me, O Lord? Why me, O Lord?’ Yet, my brothers and sisters, still within my soul I hear. … ‘I will go where you want me to go, dear Lord.’” (General Conference, October 1977.)

Just as Elder Kikuchi’s initial experience with the missionaries led to a great appreciation for missionaries and their parents, his move from a small Japanese branch to his Salt Lake City office at Church headquarters has had a very marked influence on his perspective.

“For me,” he says, “it is very important to remember that the gospel is everything in my life and this is the church of Jesus Christ. It is not just for certain races or nationalities, but it is international—universal—a church for all peoples.”

This emphasis on the universality of the gospel has become a distinct theme in Elder Kikuchi’s addresses:

“May we members of this true Church have enough courage to stand before the world to share this great message of the everlasting gospel, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with ‘every nation, kindred, tongue, and people’ (D&C 77:8). Brothers and sisters, we must be ‘the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:14).” (General Conference, October 1979.)

Elder Kikuchi’s present assignment—as a counselor in the Salt Lake City North Area Presidency (before that he was Executive Administrator for the Granger-Murray area)—has taken him far from the street meetings he faithfully attended with the elders after his baptism. But those humble beginnings have strongly influenced him, and as he goes about his calling in Utah and elsewhere, he continually stresses these two closely linked ideas: Church members are doing a great and wonderful work by living true and righteous lives and by sending their sons and daughters on missions; and we need to remember that Christ is the center of our faith, and his gospel is for all people and must be preached to every nation as soon as possible.

Shortly after his baptism, Elder Kikuchi became a missionary to his own people. Later he became a branch president, a counselor to a mission president, a counselor to a stake president, and then stake president himself. Shortly after his call as a General Authority, his area of service in Asia was extended; this time he was appointed as Area Executive Administrator for Japan and Korea.

Interestingly enough, one of the mission presidents who served under Elder Kikuchi was R. Gordon Porter. “He would call me on the phone,” recalls President Porter, “and say, ‘This is your investigator calling.’” President Porter adds that virtually every time they talked, Elder Kikuchi would again thank him for what he and Elder Law had done. “But we really hadn’t done anything special,” says President Porter. “Like many missionaries, we were simply out proselyting on our preparation day.”

Still, that one afternoon of extra effort resulted in the conversion of a man who has had the opportunity to influence many more. Elder Kikuchi’s own conversion experience illustrates two ideals he holds dear—that the Lord works through small means, and that missionary work has a rippling effect we little comprehend.

Elder Kikuchi served in Japan as Executive Administrator from 1978 till 1982 and was there when area conferences were held in many places in Asia and the Tokyo Temple was dedicated. Then came another transition: leaving Tokyo—once the strange city but now home—and leaving their homeland itself, the Kikuchi family moved to Salt Lake City to adopt a new language and a new culture. One simply needs to imagine departing his or her native country to understand what an adjustment such a move must involve.

“The English is difficult,” says Sister Kikuchi, who now serves as a Relief Society music director and a visiting teacher, “but we are having a very happy experience here.”

The Kikuchi children—Sarah, nineteen; Renah, sixteen; Ruth, fourteen; and Matthew, ten—have endured the difficulty of leaving Japan and learning a new language. They now attend the same English-speaking schools as their many friends.

“We were homesick at first,” says Elder Kikuchi, “but we are now settled.” Then, with a smile, he adds, “But we do miss sashimi [raw fish].”

He and Sister Kikuchi have always emphasized to their children that Elder Kikuchi’s call is like any other—one to be performed faithfully, with thoughts directed to the Lord rather than to any sense of personal accomplishment. “We’ve always taught our children that every calling in the Church is important no matter what it is; all callings are from the Lord,” says Sister Kikuchi.

The Kikuchi family enjoys a number of activities together, including music, reading, cooking, fishing, and taking drives. Elder Kikuchi has the kind of hobbies one might expect from a thoughtful, meticulous man: gardening, painting, and carpentry.

Now in his early forties, he has already lived a remarkable life filled with changes neither he nor those around him expected. Still, there have been continual and unmistakable signs of the Lord’s influence in his life, and they have left him with a solid testimony:

“I love our Heavenly Father. I know that God lives. I know that there is a living prophet of God today, and I support him with all my heart. The Lord lives, and this is his gospel. The Savior, Jesus Christ, is the center of our lives. I love him with all my heart. It is in him, by him, and through him whereby we might be saved!”

[photo] Elder Kikuchi at his desk in the Church administration building, Salt Lake City. The first native Japanese called to be a General Authority, he was sustained a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy in October 1977.

[photo] Yoshihiko Kikuchi at six months, 1941.

[photo] Fifteen-year-old Yoshihiko Kikuchi (bottom left) poses with friends and teachers after his junior high school graduation.

[photo] Elder Kikuchi at age nineteen, while he was serving as a missionary in Osaka, Japan.

[photo] Toshiko and Yoshihiko Kikuchi with their oldest daughter, Sarah, in the summer of 1966.

[photo] The Kikuchi family today (left to right): Sister Kikuchi, Matthew, Elder Kikuchi, Ruth, Renah, Sarah.