Masao Watabe: Serving a Lifelong Mission


Climbing the long stairway to the highest dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy, the tourists paused halfway up to rest—all except a slender Japanese man. Although he looked older than some of the others, he climbed to the top energetically and without stopping. Several in the group asked the man why he had so much energy. “Because I am a Mormon,” replied Brother Masao Watabe with a chuckle.

A curious American asked him how the Catholic cathedral might compare with a Latter-day Saint temple. Calmly, as if he had been waiting for just such a question, Brother Watabe took some cards from his pocket and passed them around among the group. On the front was a photograph of the Hawaii Temple, where Brother Watabe was serving as a temple missionary. On the back, pointed out Brother Watabe, were the Articles of Faith.

In fact, Brother Watabe probably was looking for just such an opportunity to share his faith. Now second counselor in the presidency of the Taipei Taiwan Temple, Brother Watabe has talked about the gospel to people on trains and buses, to military officers and employers.

Perhaps he feels such missionary zeal because the gospel has so deeply changed his own life. Masao Watabe was born to Japanese parents in the An-Tung Province of China, and he belonged to one of the sects of Shintoism. He was an intelligent young man with an interest in languages. After graduating from college, he married and was sent by the Japanese foreign office to study the Mandarin language in Peking. He worked at the Japanese embassy in Peking and at the Japanese foreign office in Tokyo.

A Period of Despair

An idealistic young man, Masao Watabe had had a lifelong dream of unifying the nations of the world. Then World War II began, bringing death, devastation, and defeat. A year before the war ended, young Masao was drafted into the Japanese army. The experience of war plunged him into a period of despair. “Life was like wandering in the darkness with no hope or purpose,” he recalls.

After the war, Masao was transferred to the city of Sendai, Japan. There he met a Catholic priest who introduced him to Christianity. “When I talked to him about the religion of Jesus Christ,” Brother Watabe remembers, “I felt good in my heart. I asked many questions about Christianity. As I listened to his answers my heart, which had been struggling in the darkness, gradually became enlightened, and it seemed to me the Lord’s voice began to whisper to it.”

After a short time, Masao became disillusioned with Catholicism. He sought out a Bible class at a local university, which he attended for a year. His teacher, the wife of a Methodist minister, took him to church. She and her husband encouraged him to be baptized into the Methodist church. Because he had unanswered questions about that faith, he hesitated.

While he was still considering becoming a Methodist, one of his students told him that two American missionaries had begun boarding at his house. Masao was eager to meet them, and the next day the student brought them to school. “As I shook hands with them, I had a very good feeling,” says Brother Watabe. When he attended Sunday School with them, he was impressed with the simplicity of the services and the sincerity of the people.

Rekindled Hope

A missionary pamphlet, Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story, fascinated him so greatly that he read it all night. But it was the Book of Mormon itself that rekindled the hope he had lost during the war. When he first read the prophecy contained in 1 Nephi chapter 10 [1 Ne. 10], concerning the scattering and gathering together of Israel, his heart was filled with joy. All his life he had yearned to help bring about unity in the world. He was also excited to learn that his deceased ancestors could receive baptism and other saving ordinances.

Ever since that cold day in November 1949 when he was baptized in the Hirose River, Brother Watabe has dedicated himself to sharing the joy he has found in the gospel. He was able to baptize his wife, Sister Hisako Watabe, in July of the next year. Their oldest son, nine-year-old Masahisa, was baptized that same day. And he has baptized their two younger sons, Masaji and Masakazu, and two daughters, Seiko and Yasuko, at age eight.

A Daily Mission

When Brother Watabe learned that each member of the Church should be a missionary, he committed himself to go tracting every day. He began by tracting in the train on the way to work, giving pamphlets to those who were interested. While serving a mission in Brazil, his third son, Masakazu, had the unusual experience of baptizing a man who had first heard of the gospel from Masao Watabe on a train in Japan fifteen years earlier.

As the first native Japanese member of the Church in Sendai City, Brother Watabe has been a faithful servant. He became the first president of the Sendai Branch. When the first stake in Asia was established in Japan, he served as stake patriarch. Because he feels that the best advice is the word of God, he prepared himself to give blessings by studying the scriptures. One of his favorite scriptures to quote is from Matthew: “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 10:38–39.)

Shortly after Brother Watabe joined the Church, his commitment to his faith cost him his job at the Japanese foreign office in Sendai. As a new convert, Brother Watabe stopped attending office parties, where drinking wine and pouring wine for others to drink was customary. His superior officer warned him several times that he must attend these parties and that he must stop taking part in missionary street meetings. But Brother Watabe remained steadfast. Finally his superior called him in and said, “You would rather go to your church than work here; we don’t need you anymore.” Soon Brother Watabe was offered a job in a U.S. Army camp. After working there for five years, Brother Watabe was called to the mission home in Tokyo to work as a translator for the Church.

The Watabes’ commitment to their faith has brought a life filled with joy, including the joy of a faithful family. In 1968, the entire Watabe family was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. The Watabe children are all married, and Brother and Sister Watabe have twenty grandchildren. All the Watabe sons have served missions for the Church.

In 1979, Brother and Sister Watabe were called to a work they love, serving as temple missionaries in the Hawaii Temple. Later, Brother Watabe received the authority to act as a sealer. The Watabes enjoy their work in the Taipei Taiwan Temple, where Brother Watabe serves as second counselor.

Already Brother Watabe is planning another way to share the gospel after he is released from the temple presidency. He hopes to return to Japan and write books that will express his testimony to his fellow countrymen. For Brother Masao Watabe, life is a mission every day.

[illustration] Illustrated by David Linn

[photos] Above right: Brother Watabe serves with his wife, Hisako, in the Taipei Temple. Lower right: Brother and Sister Watabe with their children.