On 5 February 1989, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued a challenge to the young men of the Tokyo, Japan, East Stake. “Every worthy priesthood bearer should go on a mission,” he said. “It is his responsibility.”
One young man in the congregation who accepted that challenge was Hidemasa Yatabe * Hidemasa, a student at Tsukuba University near Tokyo, had thought often about serving a mission, but up until then it has been an unfulfilled wish.
As for many young men, it was a difficult decision. For Hidemasa to serve a mission would mean giving up his position on the All-Japan gymnastics team and opportunity to appear in international competition.
“The university had only a few gymnasts,” he says, “and our success was based on team members dedicating a great deal of time practicing together. We even ate together. We became as one technically, mentally, and emotionally. The loss of even one member of a team like that disrupts the entire team. So although I always wanted to go on a mission, I wasn’t sure how I could leave the team.”
Since his baptism in 1981, the only convert in his family, Hidemasa had been a faithful member of the Church. In 1987, Elder Oaks was in Tokyo and visited some of the Saints’ homes, including Hidemasa’s. At that time, Elder oaks blessed Hidemasa that he would be able to serve a mission. Now, two years later, that blessing was recalled and Hidemasa resolved to accept Elder Oaks’ stake conference challenge.
“However, for the next six months, gymnastics and class studies took all my time. I practiced hard to earn the right to attend the All-Japan gymnastics championship.
“But even as I began to prepare mentally and physically for future world-class competition, my desire to serve a mission became stronger and stronger. After the student championship, I was interviewed by my bishop and stake president. In the interview, the stake president said to me, ‘If you plan to go on a mission only when it is convenient for you, perhaps the Lord might bless you only when it is convenient for him.’ I was convinced that I should send in my application right away.”
When Hidemasa announced his intentions to his teammates and coach, he met with immediate opposition. “My teammates all tried to stop me from going,” he says. “It is not an overstatement to say that winning the All-Japan championship was everything my teammates had worked toward in their youth. It would be the most significant event of their lives.”
Teammates began to accuse Hidemasa of deserting the team and blame him for hurting their chances of winning in nationwide competition. “Why can’t you wait for another year?” they asked. “We have worked so hard.” At other times they would say, “Religion should make people happy; so why are you making us suffer?”
“I was grateful for the support the team members had given me in my athletic career,” Hidemasa says, “and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Without their help, I would not have achieved what I did. For me to leave for a mission meant that I would destroy all that we had worked together to build. I knew exactly how they felt. It was painful.”
To ease that pain, Hidemasa looked to the words of Church leaders for consolation. He found it in a statement by President Ezra Taft Benson, which seemed to apply especially to him: “One of the most difficult tests of all is when you have to choose between pleasing God or pleasing someone you love or respect. … We should give God, the Father of our spirits, an exclusive preeminence in our lives. … The greatest test of life is obedience to God.” (“The Great Commandment—Love the Lord,” April General Conference, 1988.)
After reading this, Hidemasa felt strengthened and comforted. Still, there was no way for his teammates to understand the words of President Benson or the mission call. So when his teammates harassed him, he said nothing.
Finally, the last day of practice came—23 September 1989.
“I will never forget that day,” Hidemasa says. “I was practicing and thinking I would like to give something to the members of my team. Suddenly, I was summoned by my coach. He said to me harshly, ‘This is a training area for athletes, and not a place for you. Gather up all your belongings and get out.’”
Saddened, Hidemasa collected his things and prepared to leave. But as the left the practice area for the last time, he received a special witness from the Lord that he had made the correct decision. He recorded in his journal:
“My life as an athlete was finished. I would never again step into the gymnasium as a competitor. At that moment, I realized that everything I had worked toward had ended, and I could not help but cry. Everything, all the gymnastic life that I had worked so hard to build for the past ten years, including the inter-high school championship, the collegiate championship and the All-Japan championship, had come to an end.
“With that very poignant realization, I glanced back at the gymnasium. I felt that nothing remained for me there but an empty darkness. Suddenly, tears flowed freely as if to cleanse me. They were not tears of sorrow, but rather tears of gratitude. I felt the deepest gratitude for the many people who had supported, helped, and encouraged me for the last ten years. And I was sincerely grateful to Jesus Christ for his unequaled love and mercy. I rejoiced in the opportunity to demonstrate my love for him.”
During the next few days, Hidemasa visited the homes of his teammates, sharing with each one his testimony of Jesus Christ. Amazingly, their attitudes changed. “The Lord softened their hearts, and many of them began to understand my situation,” Hidemasa says.
The day before he left the university, his teammates held a farewell party for him. “Almost all my former teammates attended and gave me words of encouragement,” Hidemasa says. “One of them even congratulated me on my decision. I was able to talk to them about the Savior, declare the gospel, and give out copies of the Book of Mormon.”
Even after Hidemasa left the university, it was still painful for him to think of his teammates and what he had left behind. But later, when he went to the Tokyo Temple to receive his endowments, he had another experience that reinforced his decision.
“As I entered the celestial room, I felt a great spiritual awakening, and I understood the magnitude of the blessings our Father in Heaven has in store for us. I realized that, eternally, serving a mission was the best thing for me—and for my family, and for my former teammates.
“I was born again in Jesus Christ. There is power and strength in His name, and Satan is powerless against such strength. This is the testimony I gained in the temple.”
Since then, Hidemasa has never looked back. “Faith always accompanies sacrifice,” he says. “I sincerely testify that no matter how big a sacrifice you make, if you obey your Father in Heaven, blessings will be returned to you perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.”
One of those blessings is that Hidemasa’s parents are now receiving the missionary discussions. And he still keeps in touch with his former teammates.
What is the price of obedience? For Hidemasa Yatabe, student and gymnast, the price seemed high. But for Elder Hidemasa Yatabe, no price is too high, if it means keeping the Lord’s commandments.
“No matter how valuable things might be, they will never take the place of the great glory and blessings our Father in Heaven has in store for us,” he says. “There will be a time when you will receive an eternal reward no matter how big a sacrifice you pay to become a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
(* Elder Hidemasa Yatabe, now serving in the Japan Fukuoka Mission, is from the Ushiku Ward, Tokyo East Stake. This article is based on a news report published in Seito No Michi, the Japanese-language magazine.)