I Have Seen Lives Marvelously Changed
As told by Percy Iszlaub
BACK in 1949 a Japanese man named Kimihiro Nakata murdered two men. He was paid to do it. Those were violent times. Millions of lives had been wasted on the battlefields, and, for a while, the violence of those times spilled over into the postwar years.
My wife, Ilma, and I had just come to Japan as missionaries in the wake of World War II. Kimihiro was only 18 years of age then. The court sentenced him to death by hanging. If he had been only a few months younger, he could not have been given the death sentence. He was sent to Fukuoka prison and assigned to death row.
In Japan it is not the policy to tell a condemned man when he will be executed. A person may be on death row for a week, a month, a year, or for many years; one man was there for 30 years. In prison, Kimihiro became a disturbed and violent man. He would grab the bars of his cell and scream out: “Why don’t you kill me! Get it over with!” But the years passed and he was not executed.
In time, Kimihiro became interested in religion. He obtained a Bible and began to read it with enjoyment. However, he had questions for which he was unable to get answers. One day, in the mid-1950’s, he received a copy of the Watchtower magazine. An acquaintance, who was not interested in the magazine himself, had sent it to him. This was just what Kimihiro was looking for. He wrote the Watch Tower Society for more information, and one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was sent to call on him. The Witness arrived at the prison, and there, on death row, Kimihiro began to study the Bible.
Meanwhile, in September of 1957, our missionary assignment was changed to Fukuoka City. At the same time, the Witness who studied with Kimihiro moved away, so I took over the weekly studies on death row. Just prior to our arrival in Fukuoka, Kimihiro had been baptized in the prison bath.
So here I found a Christian brother whose personality had changed radically. Kimihiro became nearer and dearer to me as my weekly visits continued and the months passed. As we became acquainted, I could see similarities in our earlier lives. In fact, I often thought that if I had continued my former way of life I also may have ended up in prison.
A ROWDY LIFE
As a schoolboy growing up in southeast Queensland, Australia, I began smoking and drinking. This led me into trouble with the local police. Drunken barroom brawls were a weekly occurrence. One time I threw a glass of beer into the face of a man who insulted me. Drunken driving caused me to wreck two cars and I narrowly escaped serious injury when motorbike racing.
Smoking and drinking led me to gambling. When police raided our gambling hangout, we would find another place to gamble. Once, to win a bet, I walked into a crowded dance hall at midnight in my pajamas with an ice cream in one hand and a string of sausages around my neck. I won the bet but lost the race with the police, who charged me with disorderly conduct.
I was even involved in stealing, starting this activity by robbing a private home. Then I broke into a motion-picture theater, taking money and cigarettes. My stealing operations expanded when a mate of mine and I stole a car engine and installed it in another chassis. We sold it for a profit.
Rugby football was a favorite sport of mine. I played halfback behind the scrum. We played to win; ‘get the other fellow’ was our motto. One day when I was running with the ball the opposition “got” me—I came out with two broken ribs and an injured diaphragm.
SOME SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY
At the same time, I cared for my family. When my father and mother got sick and couldn’t work, I quit school and got a job as an auto mechanic to help support the family. I was only 14. Ten years later, in 1940, I was foreman of a garage, overseeing 17 mechanics.
A principal entertainment in those days was the Saturday night dances. I played the cornet in a dance band. Often I would leave work about noon on Saturday, travel to a distant town and play late, arriving back home as the sun was coming up. Saturday night dances and going out with girls were a big part of my life.
A FINE INFLUENCE IN MY LIFE
It was when I was about 23 that I met Ilma at a dance. We began seeing each other regularly, first at the dances. But then she would come over to our house, my mother and she becoming good friends. Soon I made clear my intentions of marrying her. What a change our relationship was to have on my life!
I should mention here that some years earlier my mother had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Oh, how I hated this! I was ashamed of her standing on the streets offering passersby Bible literature. I argued with her about giving it up, but without success. And I let her know that I didn’t want her talking to Ilma about her ‘crazy religion.’
Well, anyway, one particular night after a dance Ilma and I were talking about the war—the second world war had just begun in September 1939. Our conversation touched on world conditions, and Ilma said: “Wouldn’t you like to see a just and righteous government established that would bring peaceful conditions to all mankind?”
“Sure I would,” I replied, “but just who can accomplish it? Man has tried for years and where are we now? We’re starting a world war!”
“Well, Almighty God can do it, and he will do it,” Ilma replied.
“How come, then, that the Almighty has not done anything before now? Look at the war and the suffering everywhere. Can you answer that, my dear?”
Well, Ilma did answer my question, but not in the way I had anticipated. She brought out a little booklet, Government and Peace, and began to read from it: “There cannot be lasting peace without a just and righteous government. There can be no just and righteous government without peace.”
I agreed with this. “But how would such a thing be accomplished?” I wanted to know. “Show me that booklet.”
She passed it to me. Turning to the front page, I saw “WATCH TOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY . . . First Printing 10,000,000 copies.” Did I ‘hit the roof’! “How did you get this?” I asked.
“Why, from your mother,” she said, “and I read it and I believe it.”
It made me madder than ever to learn that Mother had been talking religion to Ilma. It so happened that some weeks earlier Ilma had asked Mother a question that perplexed her. “My church teaches that the wicked go to hell and the good go to heaven,” she began. “Well, I don’t feel I’m good enough to go to heaven, but I’m not so bad that I should go to hell. So where do I fit in?”
Mother happily seized the opportunity to tell Ilma about God’s original purpose to make the earth a paradise, and how that purpose will soon be fulfilled under the rule of his kingdom. She pointed out such scriptures as Psalm 37:11 and 29, which say: “The meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever.” (Authorized Version) And she explained that Jesus had even promised the evildoer who died next to him that he would be brought back to life in that earthly paradise.—Luke 23:43.
So when Ilma would come over to our home to visit on weekends, my mother would sweetly ask me to go to the market and get some things for supper. While I was gone, she was busy discussing Bible teachings with Ilma. For how long this had gone on I don’t know, but it came to a sizzling head that night.
I told Ilma that my mother wasn’t supposed to talk to her about her religion because I was in disagreement with that. But then Ilma asked, “Don’t you believe in freedom?”
“Sure I do!”
“Then aren’t you a hypocrite?” she shot back at me.
I had been called worse things before, but this was different, coming from Ilma. “You said it would be a wonderful thing if there were a peaceful government,” she went on. “But when you learned that it is Jehovah’s Witnesses who are telling how God will bring about such a thing you’re not interested.”
That was food for thought and, grumbling, I left in a huff. A week passed and I telephoned Ilma to see if I could come over and see her again. “Yes, if you act reasonable and discuss the things we were talking about the other night,” she said.
So I visited her and asked just what made her believe “Rutherford’s religion,” as I called it. (J. F. Rutherford then was president of the Watch Tower Society.) “This is the first time that I have heard such wonderful things,” she said. “It makes sense to me. When your mother answered my questions I could have danced for joy. I knew it was the truth from the time I heard it.”
I must admit that I was not in the mood for dancing. But I did listen to some scriptures, and I agreed to investigate further. So, on December 8, 1939, we were married.
HOW MY LIFE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY
“All right, we’ll get somebody to study the Bible with us,” I told Ilma. “But I don’t want my mother or her 70-year-old friend.” I really thought this was an old women’s religion. So a couple of full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses came.
At first I argued with them a lot. I couldn’t understand, for example, how the first man Adam could have sinned if he was perfect. It seemed to me that God could not have done a very good job in creating him if he turned bad. But, in time, it got through to me that God created man a free moral agent—not a robot. So he had the ability to choose to do right or wrong.
As our studies progressed into February and March, my interest grew. One day I told Ilma: “Let’s go to the assembly in Brisbane.” It was in April, just four months after our marriage. So we went. What an impression it made! I couldn’t believe that there were so many young people of our age that we met; this certainly wasn’t just an old people’s religion.
Returning home, I took our studies even more seriously and became zealous in preaching to others. In a nearby town, Norman Bellotti, a youth who had belonged to a rival gang, also became a Witness. So as companions now, rather than rival combatants, we began witnessing. In our small towns many knew us and couldn’t believe what they saw. Smoking, drunken brawls, stealing, reckless driving, gambling, toying with sexual immorality—all these were things of the past. Why?
My eyes of understanding had been opened. I truly believed with my whole heart that Jehovah God would establish a just government, his kingdom for which we pray. (Matt. 6:9, 10; Dan. 2:44) It was this knowledge and my appreciation of it that were responsible for the dramatic changes in my life. This may well have saved me from the kind of trouble that Kimihiro Nakata became involved in.
BEGINNING OF A NEW LIFE
In July 1940, Ilma and I decided to go to the assembly in Sydney and afterward begin the full-time preaching work, or pioneering as it is called. I quit my job as foreman at the garage, and we sold all our newly purchased furniture. I called Norman to tell him our plans. “Wait for me! Wait for me! I’ll come too!” he said. So Norman and his sister Beatrice joined us.
During a faith-strengthening assembly, all four of us, on July 24, 1940, symbolized our dedication to God by water baptism. Afterward we went to the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Sydney and asked for pioneer assignments. We were sent to the city of Townsville, North Queensland.
The new life we began was not an easy one. But it was rewarding and we were happy because we were confident that we were doing what pleases Jehovah God.
The rainy season runs from November to January in North Queensland. At times it rained 15 inches (39 cm) and more daily, causing flash floods. Once we were isolated for several days between two swollen rivers. When our food supplies ran out, we ate wild tomatoes.
As the world war progressed, prejudice against Jehovah’s Witnesses grew. In January 1941 the government banned our activities in Australia. But we kept right on with our preaching work. Norman and I would set out on a Monday morning to work outlying rural areas. We would load two cartons of books on one bike, and on the other blankets, a frying pan and a container with water for tea. Meanwhile Ilma and Beatrice did their witnessing around the town until we returned on Friday night.
Sometimes our food supplies ran low, and Norman and I would not have anything to eat for a day or two. Then we would be able to exchange some books for food. Or, on certain occasions, we would chop wood in exchange for a meal. Night found us sleeping under an old creek bridge, or more often under a tree. To keep the multitudes of mosquitoes at bay, we would burn cattle manure, a pile at the foot of our blanket and another pile at our head.
ENLARGED PRIVILEGES OF SERVICE
After a few months of pioneering, we returned home one day to find a letter from the Watch Tower Society. It was an invitation to serve at Bethel, the branch headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sydney. Happily we accepted. But soon after we began work at Bethel the government ordered all Bethel family members out of the home and took over the Society’s property.
Ilma and I were assigned to work in Melbourne. During the ban we preached with only our Bible, working by ourselves as inconspicuously as possible. Things became a bit lonely at times, but there were blessings. Ilma tells it this way: “One day I was working along and preached to a middle-aged woman about the paradise earth. She recognized the ring of Bible truth immediately. She studied and came right along, even though we were under ban at that very time.” The ban was lifted in June 1943.
The year 1947 found us in the circuit work in New South Wales, where I then served as a traveling representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now a new privilege was extended to us—an invitation to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, a missionary training school in New York State. What should we do?
Having left school at 14, I was apprehensive, feeling unqualified to attend such a school. But viewing the invitation as God’s will, our response was that of his prophet Isaiah: ‘Here we are! Send us.’ (Isa. 6:8) Thus in January 1948, along with 17 others from Australia and New Zealand—including my former pioneer companion Norman Bellotti—we sailed for the United States.
After five months of intensive Bible instruction we were given our missionary assignments. Ours was Japan.
MISSIONARY LIFE IN JAPAN
Our first assignment was the city of Kobe. Our missionary home was situated on a high hill, which gave us a delightful view of the beautiful Inland Sea, with quaint boats of all shapes and sizes chugging up and down the sea-lanes. A lighthouse, faithfully twinkling day and night, guided seamen past the submerged rocks.
A kindly doctor who lived next door to us was moved to say: “This missionary home will become a source of spiritual light to the people in this vicinity.” How true his words came to be! There were no local Witnesses in Kobe City then, but now there are 20 congregations there with nearly 1,400 Kingdom publishers. The doctor’s two daughters were baptized more than 20 years later, in the Tokyo area.
Our home was without furniture and in need of a good cleanup. The garden grass was very high, so we cut it and spread it out on the floor, sleeping in our clothes in this grass for three weeks until our goods arrived. We amusingly called it the “Three-Week Itch Hitch.”
Learning the language was pretty rough on us at first, particularly on me. I used to tell the brothers such things as, “eat” (taberu) the sheep instead of “feed” (tabesaseru) them, or support the Watchtower “noodles” (udon) instead of support the Watchtower “campaign” (undo). However, the brothers always lovingly helped me over these rough spots, and we pressed on.
CHANGED LIVES—A BEAUTIFUL THING
Ilma and I have been in Japan for over 31 years now. It has become our home. When we arrived, there were only three native Witnesses in the whole country. Now there are over 58,400 of our brothers and sisters proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom. During these years I have seen many, many lives marvelously changed—persons who were guilty of ‘shady deals’ in business and those living very immoral lives. But then their hearts were touched by the truths of God’s Word, and what a beautiful thing it has been to observe the change!
But to me the most dramatic change in anyone’s life was that of Kimihiro Nakata, the disturbed, violent death-row prisoner who had murdered two men. What a meek, kind young man he became! He was one of the most zealous Kingdom publishers I have known. “When I see the blue sky through my cell window,” he would tell visitors, “how I wish I could be out there helping you preach!”
Yet even from his death-row cell Kimihiro helped many. He wrote the family of the persons he killed, witnessing to them, and they expressed interest. He also witnessed extensively to his own family. He studied Braille, and transcribed the book “Let God Be True,” the booklet “This Good News of the Kingdom” and Watchtower and Awake! articles into Braille. These publications were distributed to different parts of Japan, including schools for the blind.
CONCENTRATING ON THE HOPE AHEAD
On June 10, 1959, a police car pulled up at our missionary home. Kimihiro had requested my presence at his execution that morning. His last words to me are not to be forgotten: “Today I feel strongly confident in Jehovah, and in the ransom sacrifice and the resurrection hope. For a little while I will sleep, and if it be Jehovah’s will, I shall meet you all in the paradise.” Kimihiro died to satisfy justice, giving ‘life for life.’ But he died not a hopeless hardened criminal but a dedicated, baptized, faithful servant of Jehovah.
Yes, I have seen lives marvelously changed—Kimihiro’s life, my life. In spite of failing health, Ilma is still my faithful companion in full-time service, a privilege we have enjoyed for over 40 years. Together our gratitude goes out to Jehovah, the God who can change lives.
[Blurb on page 6]
This may well have saved me from the kind of trouble that Kimihiro Nakata became involved in
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Night found us sleeping under an old creek bridge, or more often under a tree
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Kimihiro had requested my presence at his execution that morning