From Street Brawler to Christian Minister
As told by Harry S. Yoshikawa
OUR neighbors in the small community where I grew up in Hawaii nearly fifty years ago were gamblers, fighters and thieves. My father was a rough and rugged fisherman—an expert in the martial arts.
Dad taught my brother and me at an early age how to defend ourselves. We entered martial arts contests, and usually either won or placed second. When I was thirteen we went to Japan for six months, where we received further training in the martial arts. I also learned boxing skills from a former middleweight champion of Hawaii.
Brawling became my weekly activity. Tiny the Bruiser was my nickname, and I wasn’t tiny. Friends would pick me up at midnight just to fight someone in Honolulu or Waikiki.
In 1944 I joined the army and was sent to Europe. The second world war was being fought, and it was terrible to see. After it was over, I formed a musical group called the “Beach Combers,” and also a Hawaiian boxing team. We traveled through Europe entertaining both troops and civilians. We made some recordings, as well as doing radio broadcasts.
TWO YOUTHS I’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER
It was during the war in Belgium, early in 1945, that I first heard something that, at the time, didn’t mean too much to me. I was a first sergeant, and every week a youth about eighteen years old would come to my office. He would tell me how God will establish a government that will bring peace to the earth. When I asked him why he wasn’t enlisted, he said that he was already in an army—Christ’s. It was a puzzling answer to me.
After returning from the European theater of war in 1946, another teen-ager spoke to me about the Bible. At first I thought he did so because of the kind of life I was living—always fighting, getting drunk and doing other mischievous things. I recalled what the Belgian youth had said, and I was surprised because the message was the same.
This young man would distribute religious magazines on the street next to a theater. Since I felt sorry and ashamed for him, I offered to buy all his magazines so he could go home or go to the movies with me. But he always refused. I thought he was unusual for a boy of his age.
MARRIAGE DIDN’T CHANGE ME
Occasionally I took time off from brawling to court the girls, and eventually I got married. But marriage didn’t end my weekly fighting.
Sometimes when I got home there was a different kind of fight. My wife would be angry at me for leaving her and the children at home. Once, feeling great after winning a street fight, I got home at 6 a.m., and my wife was waiting up for me. I tried to sneak in through the basement, pretending to be drunk, but I didn’t fool her. She was waiting, and hit me with a geta, a wooden clog.
HOW I STARTED TO CHANGE
The year 1954 marked a turning point in my life. A fellow worker at the bus company gave me two booklets, Basis for Belief in a New World and After Armageddon—God’s New World. I took them and stayed up all night reading and rereading them. I could see that this religion was certainly different, not like others I had come to know.
I was told that there was a family of these people somewhere in the same block where we lived. So I went from house to house looking for them. It was a Tuesday evening, and a Bible study was in progress at this home when I called there. When I inquired if they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, they hesitated to reply, perhaps because I spoke in a gruff, rough way, and I was dressed in old work clothes. They may have thought that I had come to cause trouble.
However, I was invited in and treated in an extremely kind and hospitable manner, which made me feel completely at home. As a consequence, all my characteristic attitudes began to disappear. I felt ashamed of my conduct and speech. The people took the time to explain to me many points from the Bible, and encouraged me to have my own personal Bible study and to attend all their Bible meetings. I left there feeling that these people must have the truth.
It was suggested that I study with a fellow worker at the bus company where I worked; he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Wouldn’t you know—he was a person that I wanted to beat up at one time because I just didn’t like his appearance! But I wanted to learn, so I humbled myself and determined to ask him to study the Bible with me.
As I approached his home, he saw me coming. He thought for sure that I had come over to cause trouble. His wife greeted me, and she showed me extraordinary Christian kindness. Her husband’s fears soon vanished, and a Bible study was started. Within two months I began telling my friends and relatives things that I was learning, but in an untactful way.
I bluntly let my wife know that we were no longer Buddhists, and that we would not be celebrating Christmas or any other pagan holidays. I told her that she must accept this decision or else. Believing that I had gone totally insane, she pleaded with my parents for advice as to what she should do, because ‘their son’ was acting very strange. My mother was most reassuring, telling her: “Don’t worry, my son never is interested in one thing too long. Give him three months and he’ll forget all about this crazy religion and Jehovah.”
This time, though, mother was wrong. Soon I was joining others in witnessing publicly. The first time was memorable, almost disastrous. The presiding overseer took me with him to distribute Bible magazines on the street.
I was calling out to passersby, “Read the Awake!” One person in a nasty way responded: “I’m wide awake so I don’t need that trashy magazine.” Instantly my old personality returned.
“You’re wide awake, huh?! Well, you won’t be for long. You’ll be sleeping shortly.” I swung at him and chased him two blocks. In the meantime the horrified overseer caught up with me and said how glad he was that I hadn’t caught the fellow yet. He explained that if I did beat him up it would bring reproach on God’s name. I told him that had the police apprehended me, I wouldn’t tell them that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but that I was a Pentecostal.
Patiently the overseer corrected me, explaining that that would be lying. Thereafter he stood right next to me. I felt really ashamed, and when I went home I prayed to Jehovah to forgive me, for I never meant to bring reproach on his name.
My first experience of calling on people in their homes was another story. At the first door I met a lady who was quite nice. She listened to my sermon, asking questions, but her inquiries were not about the Bible. She asked, “Are you married? How many children do you have? Who does your cooking?”
Her husband, wondering who was speaking to her, came out. He told me that I was wasting my time, for she was a mental case, totally out of her right mind. But she kept asking me questions, and I gave my entire Bible sermon. This gave me confidence to go on to the next house. Lo and behold, at the next house an interested householder accepted three Bible study aids from me! By the end of the day I had placed seven more.
RADICAL CHANGES MADE
I had been so much under the influence of nicotine that once when I ran out of cigarettes I woke my wife up and made her go ask the neighbors for a couple of cigarettes. But from my study of God’s Word I learned that smoking has no place in the life of a Christian. So three months after I started to study I gave up smoking.
I decided to symbolize my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism, and was baptized July 17, 1954. My big desire now was that my family would join me in true worship.
The Oriental custom is that the wife does all the household duties without the assistance of the husband. I had been a firm believer in this custom. But since my desire to have my wife study the Bible was greater, I soon found myself washing dishes, rinsing dirty diapers, helping with the cooking and with the children.
Once when having a picnic with our friends at the beach, instead of enjoying the surf or having our usual conversation, I started reading the Bible to them. They decided to take a walk to get away from my persistent preaching. But to their dismay I was right behind them with the Bible in hand. Finally, my wife, our friend and his wife consented to have a regular Bible study.
My mother could see that I hadn’t lost interest in serving Jehovah, as she thought I would. It became clear to her that the new personality that I was developing wasn’t a temporary fad. So she, too, agreed to study the Bible to find out what it was that had made me a different person.
June 25, 1955, was one of the happiest days of my life. It was the day for baptism at an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and who do you think was sitting up front as baptismal candidates? My wife, my mother, our friend and his wife—all four of them ready to symbolize their dedication to Jehovah.
I have since had the joy of seeing a number of my fellow bus drivers accept Bible truths and become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among them was a driver whom I once pinned against the wall threatening to beat him up. He is now a traveling overseer.
OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE
The year following my baptism I began to be used in various capacities within the congregation. Then in 1958 I was appointed to be presiding overseer, and also city overseer for Honolulu.
Due to family obligations, full-time preaching service as a “pioneer” seemed out of the question for me. My four children were still of school age. But, as a family, we shared in temporary pioneering whenever we could. Then in 1963 my wife became a regular pioneer.
Our congregation was pioneer-minded. During some months more than half the congregation temporary pioneered; once seventy-two of us did. With this many pioneering in one congregation there had to be good scheduling, and a lot of mutual help. Baby-sitting, transportation and territory arrangements were made carefully. What a joyful month we had together!
In 1967 I was invited to share in the circuit work, visiting a number of congregations in the Hawaiian islands and giving spiritual encouragement to them. This was a cherished opportunity, but one that I couldn’t accept without first speaking with my family, since three of our children were still in school.
My wonderful children were willing to do part-time work and help in any way possible so that I could take on this new assignment. One daughter said: “Dad, you always encourage us to pioneer, but what about you? Here’s your opportunity to devote yourself full time to Jehovah.”
While in the circuit work we encountered many different, and sometimes amusing situations. One stands out in my mind. Two neighbors were on very bad terms, as one had cut his neighbor’s mango tree that was hanging over part of his yard. There had been harsh words and threats. When I called at the door of the man who had cut the tree, he thought I was a detective investigating the case, so he invited me in.
Once I started talking the man thought, ‘What a strange approach this detective is using, trying to discipline me with the Bible!’ After a few minutes, however, he discovered that I was a Witness, and informed me that he had never let Jehovah’s Witnesses in his home before. He agreed to a home Bible study, and his whole family joined in and made good progress. In time, ten of his relatives and friends became Witnesses.
Our children are all grown now. One son served for four years at Brooklyn Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He, with his wife, is now serving as district and circuit overseer in American Samoa. Two daughters are special pioneers, and our other son and his wife, with a baby girl now, are also active preachers of the good news. And my wife and I are still doing circuit work.
My reputation as a street brawler is remembered by only a few persons today. In fact, some find my past hard to believe. For now I’m known widely in the islands as a peaceful Christian minister, and what a joy it is thus to represent our great God, Jehovah!
[Picture on page 298]
Contrary to Oriental custom, I began helping my wife with household chores