Building a Stronghold of Truth in Okinawa
OKINAWA—the name stirs memories of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War. The bitter engagement that started April 1, 1945, ended on June 22 with the suicide of the generals and surviving remnants of the Japanese imperial army. Combined losses of the United States and Japanese armies were more than 70,000 men, but the total of civilian casualties in that battle came to an appalling 132,894 persons! Survivors staggered out of refuge trenches and hideouts among the family tombs, to find their island homeland practically demolished. They appeared to be without hope in the world. But, soon, some of them were to learn of a grand prospect for the future.
Among the survivors were Yoshiko Higa, widowed during the war, along with her infant son. Their “bomb shelter” had been the huge concrete ancestral tomb, built in a turtle-back shape to symbolize the position of a woman giving birth to a child; this is related to the Oriental idea that at death everyone ‘returns to the source.’ Here, long hours spent in the company of the bones and ashes of her ancestors had conveyed to Yoshiko that the dead are no more than what they look to be—nonexistent, lifeless dust. Later, she met with several of Jehovah’s Witnesses, these being Filipinos who had come to work on Okinawa. To her amazement, these Witnesses showed her in the Bible exactly what she had observed in the tomb—that the dead are unconscious and out of existence. And they also showed her from the Bible that God has made a wonderful provision through his Son, Jesus Christ, to raise the dead to life under his Kingdom rule.—John 5:28, 29; 1 Cor. 15:22-24.
But Yoshiko could speak only Japanese, a language foreign to the Filipinos. How, then, could they study the Bible with her? Well, they could locate the books in the Japanese Bible, corresponding to those in their English-language Bibles, also the chapter and verse numbers. So their method of study was to have her look up a succession of related scriptures on a topic, whether this might be the condition of the dead, God’s name and qualities, Christ’s presence, the Kingdom, or another subject. Yoshiko soon came to appreciate that “the word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Heb. 4:12) She started to proclaim to others the precious Bible message that she was learning.
THE GOOD NEWS SPREADS
Among the first persons to heed Yoshiko’s zealous witnessing were members of a Protestant Church in Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa. One of them, an elderly lady named Matsu Ikehara, persuaded a number of other elderly churchgoers to accept pure Bible teaching. Along with still others, these soon left the Church and became active Witnesses, proclaiming the good tidings from door to door, after the pattern established by Jesus Christ. From 1953, regular visits were made to Okinawa by the branch overseer and other representatives of the Watch Tower Society’s Japan branch. In 1955, the first circuit assembly was held in the capital, Naha, with fewer than twenty persons in attendance, seated on tatami matting in a hotel room. The program, presented in its entirety by two visitors from Japan, was greatly appreciated by all those present, most of whom immediately entered the full-time “pioneer” service of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was a small beginning. But in 1975, just twenty years later, attendance at the district assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Okinawa was more than 1,400 persons!
Those early full-time Witnesses included one named Matsue Tanaka, who “pioneered” with the Kingdom message faithfully in Shuri until her death some years later. Although meetings of the Shuri group were often held in the Tanaka home, her husband paid no attention to the message until the day that he attended the Bible talk at his wife’s funeral. Deeply impressed by what he heard that day, he took up his wife’s well-marked Bible and started to study things out for himself. Today, at seventy-three years of age, he is a “pioneer” Witness of fourteen years’ standing and a trusted elder in the Christian congregation.
Another of those early “pioneer” Witnesses in Shuri was Mitsuko Tomoyori, also a widow. While bringing up her daughter, Masako, she became a “special pioneer,” and during nineteen years in this service she has aided twenty persons to come to dedication and baptism. Her daughter now accompanies her in this work. Yoshiko Higa’s boy also “pioneered” when he grew up, and today he is one of the two traveling overseers who visit the twenty-one congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses that are scattered over six of the islands of the Ryukuyus, some sixteen congregations being located on the main island of Okinawa.
AMONG A HOSPITABLE PEOPLE
What is it like to live and serve in these islands? Located between latitudes 24 and 29 degrees north, these subtropical islands offer winters that are pleasantly mild. The summers, though, are long, hot and sultry, and many of the female Witnesses wear a hat and carry an umbrella as protection from the sun. However, the reflection of the sun from the coral-dusted ground can still cause a sun-burned face.
Between the months of May and November, typhoons hit or skirt the area, so that the wooden houses are battened down to meet the onslaught of wind and salty rain. In 1964, a typhoon washed out preparation work for a circuit assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses. No food was available in the markets—except pumpkins. Due to this constant fare in the assembly cafeteria, some of the Witnesses humorously labeled this the “pumpkin assembly.”
The people of Okinawa and the sister islands are easy-going, friendly and hospitable. When a Witness calls from house to house, the host will often spread out a straw mat for the visitor to sit on, and then listen without interrupting until the Bible presentation is completed. They are a quiet people and readily accept the literature and magazines that explain God’s kingdom. Standard Japanese is spoken everywhere, though many of the older people prefer to use the various island dialects. In 1972, Okinawa was reincorporated into Japan, and is now its southernmost province.
ANCESTOR WORSHIP AND “YUTA”
Over the centuries these island people have practiced ancestor worship, but their religion is different from the Buddhism of Japan. Few religious temples and shrines are to be seen. Religious customs and ceremonies, however, are numerous. Life is tightly woven around the family and its ancestors. If you ask an Okinawan, “Do you believe in God?” he will likely reply, “I believe only in my ancestors and trust in them.” In practically every home, the Buddhist household altar, or butsudan, can be found. Within the altar is a frame holding the memorial tablets, or ihai, for the dead. At prescribed times prayers are chanted, and incense and food offerings are made before the butsudan.
If a problem arises in the family, or if there is sickness, it is the custom to call on a spirit medium, or yuta, to find out the cause. The womenfolk, who play the major role in the religious activities of the islands, usually make this visit, and then afterward they follow through on whatever ritual has been prescribed by the yuta. This is done faithfully, and often at great expense to the family. If any do not go along with the instructions from these diviners, they are warned that dire consequences will befall some member of the family. As you can imagine, those who accept Bible truth must break away from much superstition and religious ritual.
A certain woman had been looked upon as the goddess of her village for more than thirty years. The demons would show her what was going on in the neighboring village, and their influence continued with her even when she was on her sickbed. In due course she came in contact with Bible teachings, was liberated from all demon influence and is now joyfully serving Jehovah.
In one family, it was the young son that was first contacted by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both parents worked and were seldom at home, but a regular study was started with this boy. He knew that his mother paid visits to a yuta, and that she had experienced visions and dreams, which she believed to be inspiration from God. But from his Bible studies the son learned that the yuta was not of God, but of the Devil. He respectfully told his mother that the spirit medium was a servant of Satan. The mother was deeply disturbed about this, and the immediate result was that both parents asked for a Bible study. Now the entire family, freed from all demonistic influence, are joyful worshipers of Jehovah. The mother says that she has really come to feel and experience the meaning of Jesus’ words at John 8:32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Many other school-age youngsters are rejoicing to know the good news in the Bible, and they are backing up their faith with works. They frequently encounter strong pressure at school to participate in judo or kendo (swordsmanship), but in harmony with principles stated in the Bible, such as at Isaiah 2:4, they refuse to share in activities that run contrary to their Bible-trained consciences.
A BOUNTEOUS HARVEST GATHERED
In 1965, a branch office of the Watch Tower Society was opened in Naha, Okinawa. A long-time Hawaiian missionary, Shinichi Tohara, with his wife and daughter, transferred from the snows of Hokkaido, Japan, to subtropical Okinawa, there to take care of the new branch. Since that time, the number of Kingdom proclaimers in Okinawa has increased from 217 to nearly 900 in number, with two out of every five of these gaining a knowledge of the Bible only in the past three years.
During the war in Indochina, Okinawa again became a major backup area for American fighting forces. Thousands of Americans and their families were living on the island. In 1968, hearing that the need was great there among the English-speaking population, Karl and Evalyn Emerson, formerly missionaries in Korea, moved with their young son to Okinawa. In that same year, an English congregation was started, with a Sunday attendance of about thirty persons. Quickly, the number associating grew to more than a hundred. But suddenly, within a month or two, half of these would move out to other places in the world. When this first happened, it seemed that the congregation could never recover, but very quickly the numbers attending would build up again. It is now estimated that, since this congregation was organized, more than 1,000 persons have associated at their Kingdom Hall. Of these, over 250 persons have accepted the Bible’s teachings and have been prompted thereby to serve Jehovah in the door-to-door witness work in Okinawa. The majority have continued this service on returning to the United States, where many of them are now elders and ministerial servants in their local congregations. Since 1972, two missionaries have added to the fine service done in the English congregation, but a field ripe for harvest awaits other “pioneer-minded” Witnesses who may wish to move to this subtropical “paradise.”
In 1974, a beautiful three-story branch building was dedicated during a visit by N. H. Knorr, president of the Watch Tower Society. This is set among sugarcane fields on a picturesque rocky coast, and is centrally located to care well for the congregations on the island of Okinawa, and in all the Ryukyus.
Jesus’ command to ‘preach this good news of the kingdom’ is truly being carried out in these island territories. Honesthearted persons are responding. Though still a stronghold in a military sense, Okinawa has become also a stronghold for Bible truth and for making known Jehovah’s kingdom. It is even true, as the psalmist wrote at Psalm 97:1: “Jehovah himself has become king! Let the earth be joyful. Let the many islands rejoice.”
[Maps on page 209]
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AMAMI Ō SHIMA
East China Sea