When Someone Calls, Do You Answer?
AS TOLD BY SHINICHI TOHARA
FOR the first part of my life, I did not call out to God, nor did I look for direction from him. My grandparents had emigrated from Japan to Hawaii, and my parents were Buddhists. They were not very active in their faith, so thoughts of a divinity did not loom large in my mind as I grew up.
Then I learned about evolution and came to think how foolish it was to believe in God. However, as my formal education progressed, science classes introduced me to astronomy, physics, and biology. At night I would gaze into the sky and wonder how all the stars got there. A faint voice inside of me began to ask: ‘Could there be a God who is controlling all these things?’ I came to feel that there must be Someone out there. My heart began to call out, ‘Who is this God?’
After graduating from high school, I found myself tied down by my work as a mechanic at a sake brewery, and I had no time to meditate on the question of God. Soon I met Masako, who became my wife in 1937, and eventually we were blessed with three children. What a faithful companion and hardworking mother Masako has proved to be!
Now that I had a family, I thought seriously about our future. Again I started to go outside and gaze at the stars. I was convinced that there was a God. I did not know who that God was, but I began to call out to him anyway. Repeatedly I begged: ‘If you are out there somewhere, please help my family to find a way to walk in happiness.’
My Call Was Finally Answered
We had been living with my parents ever since our marriage, but in 1941 we started to live on our own in Hilo, Hawaii. Just after we settled into our new home, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941. It was a time of tension, and everyone was worried about the future.
One month after the Pearl Harbor attack, I was polishing my car when a man approached me and offered me a book entitled Children. He introduced himself as Ralph Garoutte, a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I did not understand what he was saying, but I was interested in God, so I accepted the book. The following week, Ralph returned and offered me a home Bible study. Although I had heard of the Bible, this was the first time that I actually saw one. I accepted the Bible study, and my wife and her younger sister joined in.
The truth that the Bible was God’s Word really impressed me. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) That Jehovah had a purpose was even more wonderful. He was the Creator I had been looking for! (Isaiah 45:18) We were thrilled to learn that the original Paradise that had been lost was to be restored right here on earth, and we could be a part of it. (Revelation 21:1-4) Here was the answer to my call to God!
We spoke to anyone and everyone about these newfound truths. My parents thought we were crazy, but that did not discourage us. After three months of intensive Bible study, on April 19, 1942, my wife and I were baptized in symbol of our dedication to our God, Jehovah. Masako’s younger sister Yoshi and her husband, Jerry, who had by then joined our Bible study, were baptized with us. We had only a limited knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, but it was enough to move us to want to serve God.
With the second world war still raging, I surmised that the end of this system was just around the corner, and my wife and I felt the need to warn people of this. The Garouttes were our example in this regard. Both Ralph and his wife were serving as pioneers, full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I compared our situation with that of Ralph. He had a wife and four children. I had a wife and only three children. If he could do it, I should be able to do it too. So the month following our baptism, we applied for pioneer service.
Even before being accepted as a pioneer, I disposed of all unnecessary things, including my steel guitar, saxophone, and violin. I had been a great music enthusiast, but I discarded everything except my little harmonica. Moreover, my job in the sake brewery no longer seemed attractive. (Philippians 3:8) I built a trailer and waited to see if Jehovah would answer my pleas to be used. I did not have to wait long. We were accepted as pioneers from June 1, 1942. We went straight into serving Jehovah full-time and have never regretted that decision.
Pioneering in Hawaii
Together with the Garouttes, we covered Hawaii, the Big Island, including Kona, the famous coffee area, and Kau. In those days we worked with the phonograph. It was quite heavy, but we were still young and strong. Hence, with the phonograph in one hand and a bag of books in the other, we followed any trails that might lead us to hearing ears in the coffee fields, plantations, and everyplace else. Then, after covering the whole island, we were assigned to Kohala on the Big Island. Kohala was a small sugarcane plantation, populated by Caucasians, Filipinos, Chinese, Hawaiians, Japanese, and Portuguese. Each group had its own customs, ideas, tastes, and religions.
Once I began pioneering, I never took up secular employment again. For a time we lived on my savings, and as the need arose, I went spearfishing. Amazingly, I always came home with some fish. We picked wild greens and herbs growing on the roadside, and those graced our plates at suppertime. I made an oven from galvanized tin, and Masako learned to bake bread. It was the best bread I have ever eaten.
When we went to Honolulu for a Christian convention in 1943, Donald Haslett, who was then branch overseer in Hawaii, invited us to move there and live in a small apartment built over the Watch Tower Society’s garage. I was assigned as janitor for the branch property and enjoyed the next five years of pioneering from there.
An Unexpected Call
In 1943 we heard that the Society had begun a school to train missionaries for foreign service. How we would have loved to attend! Families with children were not invited, though, so we gave it no further thought. However, in 1947, Brother Haslett told us that the Society wanted to know if there were any Hawaiians willing to take up foreign service in Japan. He asked us what we thought, and like Isaiah, I said: “Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8) My wife felt the same way. We had no hesitation about answering Jehovah’s call.
So we were invited to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead to be trained as missionaries. The invitation included our three young children. Five others, Donald and Mabel Haslett, Jerry and Yoshi Toma, and Elsie Tanigawa, were also invited, and together we made our way to New York in the winter of 1948.
We crossed the continent by bus. After three days on the bus, all of us were tired, and Brother Haslett suggested that we take a break and stay in a hotel overnight. When we got off the bus, a man approached us and shouted: “Japs! I’m going home to get my gun to shoot them!”
“They’re not Japanese,” said Brother Haslett. “They’re Hawaiians. Can’t you tell the difference?” We were saved by his quick-witted remark.
Were we really part of the 11th class of Gilead? It seemed like a wonderful dream. The reality of it, though, soon sank in. In our class, 25 students had been selected by the then president of the Watch Tower Society, Nathan H. Knorr, to be trained for possible missionary service in Japan. As I was of Japanese descent and spoke some Japanese, I was assigned to teach the language to this group of students. Since I was not proficient in the language, this was not easy; but somehow we all survived!
At that time our son, Loy, was ten years old, and our daughters, Thelma and Sally, were eight and six. While we were in school, what happened to them? They went to school too! A bus picked them up in the morning and brought them back home later in the day. When the children got home from school, Loy worked with the brothers on the Society’s farm, and Thelma and Sally worked in the laundry folding handkerchiefs.
Conditioning the Mind to the Unknown
When we graduated from Gilead on August 1, 1948, we were anxious to get to our assignment. Brother Haslett went ahead of us to find a place for the missionaries to live. Finally, he found a two-story house in Tokyo, and on August 20, 1949, our family departed for our future home.
Before arriving in Japan, I often thought about this Oriental land. I contemplated the loyalty of the Japanese people to their human lords and to the emperor. Many Japanese gave their lives for these human rulers. During the second world war, kamikaze pilots died for the emperor by aiming their aircraft at the smokestacks of enemy warships. I remember thinking that if the Japanese people are so faithful to human lords, what would they do if they found the true Lord, Jehovah?
When we arrived in Japan, there were only seven missionaries and a handful of publishers in the whole land. All of us set to work, and I strove to improve my knowledge of the language and was able to start Bible studies with many who were calling out to God in their hearts. A number of those early Bible students have continued faithful right down to this day.
Missionary Service With Our Children
How could we manage missionary service with three small children to care for? Well, Jehovah was the power behind it all. We received a small reimbursement from the Society, and Masako made clothes for the children. In addition we had some help from my parents.
After he graduated from junior high school, Loy served at the Japan branch of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society for a while. However, because of health problems, he decided to return to Hawaii for treatment. He and his wife are now faithfully serving Jehovah in California. His marriage resulted in our being blessed with four faithful grandchildren. All of them are baptized, and one, together with his wife, is serving at Brooklyn Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My daughters, Thelma and Sally, were given missionary status when they grew up. Thelma is presently serving as a missionary in the city of Toyama. Sally married a missionary brother, Ron Trost, and they have been serving in Japan as missionaries in the traveling work for over 25 years.
From North to South
After spending two years in Tokyo, we were sent to Osaka for two years. Our next assignment took us up north to Sendai, where we served for some six years. Those years in Sendai conditioned us for assignments on the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It was in Hokkaido that our daughters received missionary status. It was there too that we had to get used to winter temperatures that sometimes went below zero. After tropical Hawaii it was quite a change!
Then, one day a new call rang in my ears in the form of a letter from the Society. It asked me to open a branch office in Okinawa, which was still under U.S. control. The move from the cold northern tip of Japan to what has now become the southernmost prefecture of Japan would pose a great challenge. What would I do? Though feeling inadequate, I arrived in Okinawa in November 1965, accompanied as always by my faithful wife. Would life in Okinawa be the same as life in Japan? What about the culture? Would people respond to Jehovah’s message of salvation?
When we arrived, there were fewer than 200 publishers in Okinawa. Now there are more than 2,000. In the early days, I was part-time circuit overseer and part-time branch overseer. Traveling throughout the islands helped me to build close relationships with the brothers there, and I count it a privilege to have served them.
Our missionary career was by no means free of problems. While vacationing in the United States in 1968, Masako became ill and had to have an operation. She had a tumor removed from her intestines and then made a remarkable recovery. We did not have medical insurance, and we were worried that perhaps we would not be able to return to our assignment. Much to our surprise, however, friends in the faith cared for everything.
On a personal note, I am now living with the problems common to diabetics. Though not blind, my vision is severely impaired. But through Jehovah’s loving-kindness, I am able to take in regular spiritual nourishment by listening to tape recordings of The Watchtower and Awake! Brothers and sisters in the faith also help by reading various material for me.
How could I continue to give public talks with my impaired eyesight? At first I taped my talks and had them played through the sound system while I pantomimed. However, at my daughter’s suggestion, I improved on this. Now I record my talks with a small tape recorder and give them while listening with earphones to my prerecorded talk.
Whenever we faced real problems, we never failed to call upon Jehovah. Eventually, the blessings that came from Jehovah’s solving the problems always seemed greater than the problems themselves had appeared to be. To continue in his service is the only way to show our gratitude.
After 23 years in Okinawa, we were again assigned to the same geographical location in which we had served when we first set foot in Japan. The Society’s main office and its largest missionary home are on the original site of that two-story building in Tokyo, bought by Brother Haslett so many years ago.
Besides Masako and me, 11 of our relatives are now serving as missionaries in Japan. All consider it a great privilege to have seen the growth that Jehovah has brought to this land of predominantly Buddhist and Shinto cultures. The work in Japan had small beginnings, but Jehovah’s power has forged a “nation” of over 167,000 publishers of the good news.—Isaiah 60:22.
When I called out to God, he answered me. When he invited me, I answered positively. My wife and I feel we have only done what we ought to have done. How about you? When your Creator calls, do you answer?
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The Toharas with some of their pioneer group in Hawaii, 1942
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The Tohara children at Gilead in 1948
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Happy that they answered the call, Shinichi and Masako Tohara have completed 43 years in missionary work