Jehovah Does Not Forsake His Servants
As told by Matsue Ishii
FOR nearly a year, I had been held in solitary confinement in a tiny, filthy, flea-infested prison cell in Sendai, Japan. For that whole time, I wasn’t allowed to take a shower or a bath. My flesh was ulcerated, eaten by bedbugs. I was so racked by rheumatism that I could neither sit nor stand. Reduced to skin and bones and weighing less than 70 pounds [30 kg], I was near death.
But why was I there? Why had the authorities banged on my door at five in the morning, June 21, 1939, and arrested me? What had I done? Those were difficult times nearly 50 years ago in Japan. Let me tell you about them and about the circumstances that landed me in prison and about how I survived.
My Early Life
I was born in 1909 in Kure City, Japan, just 16 miles [25 km] from Hiroshima. My parents ran a rice shop and a kimono store. When I was nine, the Spanish flu hit our area, and soon coffins with dead bodies were piled around the crematorium. My elder sister and I caught the disease, and a week later she died. At her sudden death, I began to wonder: ‘Why do people die? What happens to them at death?’
Father was a zealous Buddhist, and to find the answer, I visited various Buddhist temples. I would ask the monks there: “Why do men die?”
“You don’t have to think about things like that,” they would answer. “If you continue to rely on Buddha and chant your mantras, you’ll be certain of attaining Nirvana and entering paradise.”
When I was 17, I learned about a book called the Bible. I obtained one but could not understand it. Later I started to attend a “Christian” church in Kure City. When I heard that man’s death was the result of Adam’s sin, it made sense to me, and I became a zealous church member.
At that time the opinion often voiced in rural towns was: “Yaso [Christian] religion will ruin the country.” As I was the first zealous “Christian” in our area, the townspeople accused me of bringing shame on the town and almost compelled me to leave. My parents were very displeased with me.
Learning Bible Truth
In an effort to make me abandon my faith, Father arranged for me to marry a total stranger, Jizo Ishii, a zealous Buddhist. His elder brother was a chief priest of a Buddhist temple. I was told that although Jizo was not a Christian, he would be understanding about my faith. So I moved to Osaka and at the age of 19 married Jizo, who was a tailor. But contrary to what my father had said, Jizo wouldn’t permit me to attend church.
At the back of our house in Tojo-cho, Osaka, there was a house with a sign: “Osaka Branch of the International Bible Students Association.” Assuming it to be a Christian group, I visited the house.
“Do you believe in the second advent of the Lord?” I asked the young man who came to the door.
“Christ’s second advent was realized in 1914,” he answered.
In astonishment, I told him that was impossible. “You should read this book,” he said, handing me The Harp of God.
To keep my husband from seeing the book, I hid it in a straw bag containing charcoal and read it whenever I could. Each fact struck me like a thunderbolt—only 144,000 are going to heaven; Christ is not a part of a Trinity but is the only-begotten Son of Jehovah, the almighty God; we are living in the time of the end; and the Spanish flu that took my sister’s life was a part of the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. I was convinced that this was the truth I had been searching for.
Eventually, my husband found out that I was reading a Christian book. However, when I took a firm stand for my faith, he began wondering whether something very important was involved and so read The Harp of God himself. I was baptized the following year, March 23, 1929, and my husband was baptized shortly afterward.
Serving as Colporteurs
We closed the tailor shop and dismissed the employees. Filled with joy, we set out in door-to-door preaching activity in Osaka. In September 1929, I became Japan’s second colporteur, as full-time ministers were then called, and my husband joined the colporteur ranks later. Together we covered three quarters of Japan, including Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Tokyo, Sendai, Sapporo, Okayama, and the island of Shikoku. We stayed in each place for about six months, renting an apartment and concentrating on literature distribution.
We used literature that was available in Japanese, such as the books The Harp of God, Deliverance, Creation, Reconciliation, and Government, as well as The Golden Age (now Awake!) and The Watchtower. As colporteurs, we spent 180 hours a month going from door to door. Although we were physically exhausted, our joy in serving was great.
Japanese colporteurs in those days were not reimbursed for their expenses but received half of the money from literature placements for living costs. Life was not easy. A fellow colporteur died of dysentery. While nursing the patient, I too contracted the disease and was hospitalized. When we served in Nagoya, a fire started next door to where we were staying. We ran down the stairs from the second floor with only the clothes we were wearing, barely escaping with our lives. What few belongings we had and the literature for distribution all went up in smoke, leaving us penniless.
When we were serving in Okayama, my husband ran a high fever for days and was diagnosed as having pulmonary tuberculosis. Tuberculosis was usually a fatal disease then. If death was inevitable, we wanted to go to Sapporo on the northernmost island, Hokkaido, to witness where the preaching work had never been done.
In September 1930, we moved to Hokkaido, where I expected my husband to die. Here the air was fresh, milk and potatoes were inexpensive, and my husband’s health gradually improved. Jehovah never forsook us but blessed us with tremendous joy in our ministry.
When we worked in Sendai for the first time, Mr. Inoue, the president of Tohoku Imperial University, granted me a personal interview. He accepted the books I had with me and then escorted me to the entrance to see me off. While witnessing from door to door, I also met Bansui Doi, a famous man of literature, who translated Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey into Japanese. He accepted the book Creation.
Among appreciative recipients of our message was the Miura family from Ishinomori. Hagino, the wife, was 17 years old when she visited our home in Sendai. After spending the night discussing the Bible, she was convinced we had the truth. Soon the whole family moved to Tokyo, where Hagino and her husband, Katsuo, served as colporteurs. Katsuo died as a faithful Witness, and Hagino is still serving faithfully. Their son, Tsutomu, has been a translator at the Japan branch of the Watch Tower Society for many years.
Temporary Bethel Service
In the 1930’s my husband and I would serve a few months each year in the Bethel located in Ogikubo, Tokyo. At the time, there were about 20 workers there. Two noisy presses printed The Golden Age. Jizo and I worked in the Clothing Department. At the change of the seasons, colporteurs would send damaged clothing to Bethel. We washed, mended, and ironed it and then sent it back to them. We even made new clothing for colporteurs. When this work was completed, we would return to the colporteur work ourselves.
One of my cherished memories of Bethel was in connection with the historic convention in Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A., in 1931. A brother had assembled a shortwave radio to receive foreign broadcasts. Turning the dial all day and all night, we tried desperately to get the convention program. In the middle of the night, the voice of the president of the Watch Tower Society, J. F. Rutherford, came across in full force. Immediately a brother started translating. Thus we heard the resolution to adopt the new name, “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and the thunderous applause of approval. Far away in the Japan Bethel, we raised a shout of joy in harmony with our brothers in America. A few minutes later, the radio reception deteriorated, and nothing more was heard. But Jehovah let us be a part of this historic moment.
Witnessing Despite Opposition
During the worldwide depression after World War I, a whirlwind of nationalism and militarism swept Japan. The emperor was viewed as a living god to whom the integrity of all citizens belonged. But we would tell the people: “There is only one God.”
“Are you saying that the emperor is not God?” they would reply.
“There is to be a wonderful future brought about by God’s Kingdom,” we would explain.
“Do you want a rule other than that of the emperor?” they would ask. Whatever we said, our words were twisted and we were called traitors. The authorities intensified their censorship of our literature, and the frequency with which plainclothes detectives tailed us increased.
Usually once a year, a public talk was held. Even though we had only about 20 Witnesses in Tokyo, about 500 attended the talk “The Fall of Christian Civilization” in the city’s Yodobashi Public Hall. Policemen surrounded the speaker on the platform, and if he said anything they considered objectionable, a voice would boom, “Speaker, stop!” At that the speaker would tactfully refer to a scripture and read it. Since the Bible wasn’t banned, he was allowed to continue.
Arrest and Imprisonment
Almost ten years after we started in the colporteur work, a wholesale arrest of Jehovah’s Witnesses took place in Japan. On that fateful morning of June 21, 1939, I was taken to the police station in Ishinomaki and thrown into a dark detention room that had soot hanging from the ceiling. Soon I was transferred to Sendai and put into solitary confinement. My husband was arrested too, and I lost all contact with him until after the war.
I lay in that filthy cell almost a year and nearly died. Later I learned that during that period the authorities were conducting an investigation of Junzo Akashi, the overseer of the Japan branch. Finally, my interrogation started. “Fling the Bible on the floor and stamp on it,” ordered a reviling investigator. Then he showed me the investigation record of Akashi. At first I thought it was a trick.
“Do you believe in Akashi?” asked the interrogator.
“Akashi is only an imperfect human,” I answered. “As long as Akashi followed Bible principles, Akashi was used as a servant of God. But since his statements have deviated from the Bible, he is no longer my brother.” Alas, Akashi had indeed abandoned the truth!
Eventually, the sentence was given, and I was confined in the Sendai Women’s Prison. Again I was put in solitary confinement. Meals, although meager, were provided. For 30 minutes each morning, I was permitted to take a walk under the surveillance of a woman warden. Once a warden told me: “If times were better, you would be in a position to teach us. Since times are bad, please be patient.” I was encouraged by her words.
Meanwhile, Japan plunged into war with the United States, and this dominated the world scene. Toward the end of 1944, five and a half years after my arrest, I was released. In August 1945 atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan lost the war.
From Darkness Into Light
My husband and I returned to Kure City and in the postwar chaos eked out a living by running a tailor shop. Old companions were scattered, and we lost almost all contact with them. However, about four years after the war, we heard that missionaries were coming from the United States, and the Kingdom work would be reopened in Japan.
Taking our six-year-old son, whom we had adopted after the war, my husband attended the first postwar assembly, held in Tarumi, Kobe. It ran from the end of December 1949 into the new year of 1950. Since 1939 the Kingdom work in Japan had experienced a ‘dark age,’ but finally we were being transferred into the light!
In 1951 we heard that Nathan H. Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Society, was scheduled to visit Japan, but we did not know the date. On April 27, 1951, as we were tailoring clothes until midnight, we heard the day’s final radio news. “Mr. N. H. Knorr, president of the Watch Tower, will visit Japan and deliver a talk at Kyoritsu Auditorium,” the announcer said. The next day I boarded a train and traveled the 560 miles [900 km] to Tokyo amid chaotic postwar poverty. On April 29, I was sitting listening to Brother Knorr.
I was thrilled to hear the announcement of the publication of The Watchtower in Japanese for the first time after the war. I went home with the newly published May 1, 1951, issue. I can recall no time in my whole life when I felt happier. “Now the work in Japan is officially reopened,” I thought, “and just as was prophesied, Jehovah’s work will increase, one will be a thousand.”
Since then we have enjoyed full contact with Jehovah’s organization. In August 1951 Brother Adrian Thompson visited us for the first time as circuit overseer. Meetings were started, and the first two special pioneer brothers in Japan were assigned to Kure City. The congregation gradually grew, and my husband served as congregation servant.
What happened to the some 130 Witnesses in prewar Japan? The bad example of Junzo Akashi, the branch overseer, had a traumatic effect on many. A few became his followers, others were scattered, and some apparently died in the persecution. About a dozen remained active in Jehovah’s service, and some are still blessed with a measure of health and are serving zealously.
As my health improved, I served as a regular pioneer for a few years. When my husband was 71 years old, he vomited a massive volume of blood and was rushed to the hospital. The doctors, thankfully, honored his refusal to accept a blood transfusion. Although he recovered considerably, he died six months later. Our adopted son, Kozo, was a special pioneer for many years and is now a Christian elder.
In retrospect, it seems to me that most of those from before the war who excelled in ability and intellect left God’s organization when subjected to great pressure. Maybe they relied on their own abilities. Those who remained faithful had no special abilities and were inconspicuous. Surely all of us must always trust in Jehovah with all our heart.—Proverbs 3:5.
Eventually the “great tribulation” is certain to come. (Matthew 24:21) We may then face trials that dwarf the previous ones. Enduring them may not be as easy as we imagine. But if we truly rely on Jehovah, really love him and cry out in our heart for his help, just as he did not forsake me, he will not forsake his servants who strive to serve him faithfully.—Psalm 37:25.
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I married Jizo Ishii, a total stranger to me
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When Brother Knorr visited Japan in 1951, he served missionaries and assemblies in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe (above)