When I lived in Kumamoto in 2006, I had the privilege of hearing a man give an amazing testimony. Yasunari Taniguchi spoke at the English service about his experiences during and after World War II. Mr. Taniguchi taught at Kyushu Gakuin for more than 40 years, but this week he passed away. He inspired many people, including me. You can read Mr. Taniguchi’s testimony in this article, which was published in The Lutheran magazine several years ago. The first part of the article is about the history of Christianity in Japan. In the second part, Mr. Taniguchi shares the story of his life. I retyped the article for easier reading, but you will also find the actual article below.
“God Makes the Seeds Grow.”—The Lutheran
Japan has never been fertile ground for Christian mission. St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuits were first to bring the seed of the Gospel to Japan in the early 1500s. The seed blossomed, only to be cut back by the bloody persecutions of the isolationist Tokugawa government. Thousands of believers died. Those who did not perish or renounce the faith went underground, preserving the faith, but leaving it like the government, isolated and increasingly stagnant.
Two hundred years later Matthew Perry’s black gunships re-opened Japan and missionaries came from nearly every Christian land on the globe to reintroduce the Gospel. Japan readily took to Western technology and education, but the newly planted churches grew slowly. As Japan built itself into a world power, mission efforts became more and more difficult.
Total defeat in World War II changed all this –for a while. Physically and emotionally drained, thousands of people looked for answers in the message of Jesus Christ. Yet, as the Japanese phoenix rose from the ashes of war and industry, and commerce forged ahead, once again the nation left Christianity behind. Today, after more than a hundred years of earnest evangelism, barely one percent of the Japanese population is Christian.
The situation in the Japanese Lutheran churches is typical of that in other Protestant missions. There has only been marginal growth since the “boom” postwar years. Congregations are heavy with converts from those days. Youth are few, and with a high percentage of Japanese pastors now approaching retirement, a leadership crisis is on the horizon. Along with the Japanese Lutherans, nearly 100 missionaries from the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America are working hard to form a more promising future, but, with the high cost of living and the low rate of church growth, spreading the Gospel in Japan remains a very cost inefficient enterprise.
Is Japan rocky soil? Thorny soil? Where is the good soil for which many have worked? When will the harvest come?
What follows is the vision of one of Japan’s 10,000 Lutherans, Yasunari Taniguchi, a junior high school English teacher. It is his testimony and life story and contains the heart of what mission is about in Japan. Taniguchi gave this message to a group of LCA missionaries at a recent church service in Kumamoto, Japan.
The other day I happened to meet one of my old junior high classmates for the first time in 30 years. He asked me what my job was.
I said, “I’m working at Kyushu Gakuin Junior High School.”
“Ah, so you’re working in the school office.”
“Uh, no. I’m a teacher.”
“Oh? Then I guess you’re teaching Japanese. You were pretty good at Japanese.”
“I teach English.”
“What? You, an English Teacher! I can’t believe it. I’ll never believe it until I see you standing in front of a classroom!”
When I met him I was suddenly reminded of my younger days.
Can you believe that a man like me became an English teacher? From my own experience I have to agree that English education in Japan is not reliable. But, before I became an English teacher, one of my friends told me, “Don’t worry. In America there are many French teachers who can’t speak French.” Those words encouraged me to give English teaching a try.
Perhaps you’re wondering whatever made me decide to become an English teacher in the first place. I’ll tell you.
I was born in Kumamoto City in 1931, the youngest of six children. My father died when I was six years old. My mother had a hard time bringing up so many children and she had to take special care of me because I had contracted polio at age three and lost the use of my right leg. You can’t imagine how much I depended on my mother.
Unfortunately, World War II broke out. One by one my brothers were conscripted into the army. We sometimes heard air raid sirens even in the calm city of Kumamoto. At midnight on the night of July 1, 1945, our city was bombed out.
The next morning I found my mother’s body lying beside the road. She had been directly hit by an incendiary bomb. When I found her dead, I didn’t cry. I experienced such deep sorrow that I found I could not cry. Everything just looked pale. Now that I had lost my most reliable support, I also lost my energy to live. From that day on I never went into the air raid shelter when I heard the warning siren. It didn’t matter at all to me whether I lived or died. I watched the bombing calmly through the window.
As the days went by we settled into a routine of life. One of my chores was to boil water for the family bath. For fuel I used oil from incendiary bombs which hadn’t gone off. I could find the bombs everywhere around my house. First I took off the cap to the bomb. Then from within the bomb I pulled out a type of cloth—perhaps it was a wrapping—that was soaked in thick oil. I stuck this under our iron bathtub and lit it with a match. It burned hot enough that we could take a bath in half an hour.
When I had trouble opening the cap of a bomb, I used to hit its fuse with a hammer. Of course, I knew that lots of people were losing their lives just by touching unexploded bombs, but that didn’t stop me. Each day I wondered if it would be my last day on earth. Once I had battered the fuse apart, I scooped up all the gunpowder from within. With that gunpowder I made a trail on the ground leading to the oily cloth underneath our bath tub. Secretly I called my dangerous game “Death Play.” Strange to say, none of the bombs ever exploded.
A month and a half after my mother died, the war ended. At last I was able to cry, because it seemed that my mother had died in vain. I swore revenge.
True, the Americans were kind enough to send us food, medicine, and clothes almost from the day the war ended, but the flame of hatred kept burning deep inside me. The only dream I had in those days was that someday I would go to America, find those Air Force pilots, and stab them to death, one by one. So, even though I didn’t like it at all, I decided I must learn English. One day I knocked on the door of a Mr. Sedoris McCartney, who had come to Kumamoto as a Lutheran missionary. I figured from this American I would learn just enough English to make my dream of revenge come true.
I was surprised to find there was such an honest man among the American people. I had thought all Americans were completely evil. After about three months of study with Mr. McCartney, I started to feel my attitude changing. I became afraid. What I was learning was far different than what I had been thinking. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” When I read those words in the Bible, I threw the book down to the floor. What a foolish teaching for a person like me, who lived on hatred. I tried to forget this ridiculous saying. But more and more I felt as if someone was whispering in my ear, “Hate no one. Love all people.” I poured out my troubles to Mr. McCartney. I learned how much he was against warfare. Attending his Bible class, I found my thoughts of revenge melting away like snow in the spring.
I was baptized at Suidocho Lutheran Church while Mr. and Mrs. McCartney watched. Of course, after that I quit playing with incendiary bombs.
About 30 years later, I had a chance to go to America. When I took my first steps at San Francisco Airport, I was so happy. I was excited because this was the place I might have come to stab people, if my feelings of hate had endured. Instead, I had come to improve my English. I thanked God for changing my life.
I cried, “Why is the sky of San Francisco so beautiful!?”
A gentleman walking beside me replied, “San Francisco is always like this at this time of year.” Of course, he knew nothing about me.
Now I feel very strange when I think about my life. I’m teaching English, which I couldn’t stand. I deeply love the American people whom I had hated so much. America has become one of my favorite countries. I believe none of these changes could have happened without the grace of God. His ways are indeed mysterious. No one knows when, where or how God will catch hold of you. I am very, very happy to be Christian.
Now I know several of you American missionaries are going home. I am very thankful for your hard work in Japan. I believe your work has been successful, even if you think now you can’t see any results. I am sure you sowed seeds in people’s hearts just like Mr. McCartney did. It is God who makes the seeds grow.
To those of you who are still engaged in mission work in Japan: I know evangelism in Japan is very hard work. Someone once said that, when it comes to religion, Japan is a barren tract of land. I believe that’s half true. Most Japanese people take their children to a Shinto shrine for a blessing shortly after birth. The same people will then exchange Christmas gifts and enjoy the Christmas season. On New Year’s Day they will go back to the shrines. Their child will seek to have his wedding at a Christian church, but will ask to have his funeral at a Buddhist temple. I can’t even understand it and I’m Japanese. I think, however proud we are of our technology, we Japanese are primitive when it comes to religion. We Japanese are very good people. We constructed a modern nation by accepting new things, while, at the same time, making much of old traditions. We Japanese find everything new and everything old valuable, but we still don’t know what is the most precious. Please continue to guide us, teaching what is most important, even though it seems to take so much time.
Once two merchants went to Africa to sell shoes. To their surprise none of the natives wore shoes. One of the two gave up and went home, feeling there would be no buyers for his product. The other, however, was overjoyed, because he felt certain he could sell shoes to everyone—for nobody had a pair.
We can choose to look at our situation as optimists or pessimists. Trust in God. Possibilities abound. I know because I was changed by God’s grace.
Post-reading reflection questions
1. Who are your spiritual mentors?
2. Who are you mentoring in their faith journeys?
3. What seeds of faith have you sown recently?
4. What legacy do you want to leave behind when you die? What are you doing today to make that happen?