From Emperor Worship to True Worship
AS TOLD BY ISAMU SUGIURA
Even though it was obvious in 1945 that Japan was losing World War II, we were confident that kamikaze (“divine wind”) would blow and defeat the enemy. Kamikaze refers to the storms in 1274 and 1281 that twice destroyed much of the invading Mongol armadas off the Japanese coast, thus forcing them to withdraw.
THEREFORE, when Emperor Hirohito, on August 15, 1945, announced to the nation that Japan had surrendered to the Allied Forces, the hopes of a hundred million people devoted to him were shattered. I was then a school lad, and my hopes were shattered too. ‘If the emperor is not the living God, who is?’ I wondered. ‘Whom should I trust?’
Actually, though, Japan’s defeat in World War II opened the way for me and thousands of other Japanese to learn about the true God, Jehovah. Before I tell of the changes I had to make, let me acquaint you with my religious upbringing.
Early Religious Influences
I was born in the city of Nagoya on June 16, 1932, the youngest of four boys. Father worked as a surveyor for the city. Mother was a devout believer in Tenrikyo, a Shinto sect, and my oldest brother had received religious training to be a Tenrikyo teacher. Mother and I were especially close, and she took me along to the meeting place for worship.
I was taught to bow my head and pray. The Tenrikyo religion taught belief in a creator called Tenri O no Mikoto, as well as in ten lesser deities. Its members practiced faith healing and stressed serving others and spreading their beliefs.
As a boy, I was very curious. I marveled at the moon and the countless stars in the night sky, and I wondered how far space extended beyond the sky. I found it fascinating to watch the growth of eggplants and cucumbers that I planted in a tiny plot in the backyard. Observing nature strengthened my belief in God.
The War Years
My years of elementary schooling from 1939 to 1945 coincided with the period of World War II. Emperor worship, an important part of Shinto, was stressed in our school education. We were instructed in shushin, which involved moral training with nationalistic and militaristic overtones. Flag-raising ceremonies, singing the national anthem, studying the imperial education decrees, and paying homage to a photograph of the emperor were all part of our school routine.
We also went to the local Shinto shrine to petition God for the victory of the imperial army. Two of my fleshly brothers were serving in the military. Because of my nationalistic-religious indoctrination, I rejoiced at news of the successes of the Japanese army.
Nagoya was a center for the Japanese aircraft industry, so it was a principal target for massive U.S. Air Force strikes. During the daytime, B-29 Superfortress bombers flew over the city in formation at some 30,000 feet [9,000 m], dropping hundreds of tons of bombs over the factory districts. At night the searchlights spotted the bombers as low as 4,500 feet [1,300 m]. Repeated air raids with incendiary bombs caused raging infernos in the housing areas. Nagoya alone had 54 air raids during the last nine months of the war, resulting in much suffering and more than 7,700 deaths.
By this time, bombardment from warships had begun against ten coastal cities, and people were talking about a possible landing by the U.S. forces near Tokyo. Women and young boys were trained to fight with bamboo spears to protect the country. Our slogan was “Ichioku Sougyokusai,” meaning “Death to the 100 million rather than surrender.”
On August 7, 1945, a newspaper headline reported: “New Type of Bomb Dropped Over Hiroshima.” Two days later, another one was dropped over Nagasaki. These were atom bombs, and we were later told that they had taken a combined toll of over 300,000 lives. Then, on August 15, at the end of a training march with wooden guns, we heard the emperor’s speech in which he announced Japan’s surrender. We had been convinced that we would win, but now we were devastated!
A New Hope Develops
As the occupation by American troops began, we gradually accepted the fact that the United States had won the war. Democracy was introduced to Japan, as well as a new constitution that guaranteed freedom of worship. Living conditions were harsh, food was scarce, and in 1946 my father died of malnutrition.
In the meantime, English began to be taught in the school that I was attending, and the NHK radio station began an English conversation program. For five years I listened daily to this popular program with textbook in hand. This made me dream of going to the United States someday. Because of disappointment with Shinto and Buddhist religions, I began to think that perhaps the truth about God might be found in Western religions.
Early in April, 1951, I met Grace Gregory, a Watch Tower Society missionary. She was standing in front of the Nagoya train station offering an English copy of The Watchtower and a booklet in Japanese on a Bible subject. Her humility in doing such work impressed me. I obtained both publications and readily accepted her offer of a Bible study. I promised to come to her home for the Bible study a few days later.
As I took my seat on a train and started reading The Watchtower, the first word in the opening article, “Jehovah,” caught my eye. I had never seen that name before. I did not expect to find it in the small English-Japanese dictionary I carried, but there it was! “Jehovah . . . , the God of the Bible.” Now I was beginning to find out about the God of Christianity!
On that first visit to the missionary home, I learned about a Bible lecture that was to be given a few weeks later by Nathan H. Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. He was visiting Japan with his secretary, Milton Henschel, and was coming to Nagoya. Although my Bible knowledge was limited, I enjoyed the talk very much, as well as the association with the missionaries and others in attendance.
In about two months’ time, I learned from my studies with Grace the basic truths about Jehovah, Jesus Christ, the ransom, Satan the Devil, Armageddon, and the Paradise earth. The good news of the Kingdom was exactly the kind of message I had been searching for. At the same time that I started to study, I also began attending the congregation meetings. I loved the friendly atmosphere at these gatherings, where the missionaries mixed freely with the Japanese and sat on the tatami (woven straw mats) with us.
In October 1951, the first circuit assembly in Japan was held at Nakanoshima Public Hall in the city of Osaka. There were fewer than 300 Witnesses in all of Japan; yet about 300 people attended the assembly, including nearly 50 missionaries. I even had a small part on the program. What I saw and heard so impressed me that I resolved in my heart to serve Jehovah all my life. The next day, I was baptized in the tepid waters of a nearby public bathhouse.
Joy of Pioneer Service
I wanted to become a pioneer, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called, but I also felt an obligation to help support my family. When I mustered up courage to tell my boss of my desire, I was surprised to hear him say: “I’ll be glad to cooperate with you if that would make you happy.” I was able to work only two days a week and was still able to assist my mother with household expenses. I really felt like a bird let free from a cage.
As conditions continued to improve, I started pioneering on August 1, 1954, in a territory behind Nagoya station, a few minutes’ walk from the spot where I had first met Grace. After several months, I received an assignment to serve as a special pioneer in Beppu, a city on the western island of Kyushu. Tsutomu Miura was assigned as my partner.* At the time, there were no congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the entire island, but now there are hundreds of them, divided into 22 circuits!
Foretaste of the New World
When Brother Knorr visited Japan again in April 1956, he asked me to read a few paragraphs aloud from an English Watchtower magazine. I was not told why, but a few months later, I received a letter that invited me to attend the 29th class of Gilead missionary school. So in November that year, I began an exciting trip to the United States that fulfilled a longtime dream. Living and working for a couple of months with the large Brooklyn Bethel family strengthened my faith in Jehovah’s visible organization.
In February 1957, Brother Knorr drove three of us students up to the Gilead School campus in South Lansing, upstate New York. The following five months at Gilead School, as I received instruction from Jehovah’s Word and lived in beautiful surroundings with fellow students, I had a foretaste of the Paradise earth. Ten of the 103 students, myself included, were assigned to Japan.
Appreciating My Assignments
There were about 860 Witnesses in Japan when I returned in October 1957. I was assigned to the traveling work as a circuit overseer, but first I received a few days of training for that work from Adrian Thompson in Nagoya. My circuit covered an area from Shimizu, near Mount Fuji, to Shikoku Island and included such large cities as Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Hiroshima.
In 1961, I was assigned to be a district overseer. This involved traveling from the snowy northern island of Hokkaido to the subtropical island of Okinawa and even beyond to the Ishigaki islands near Taiwan, a distance of about 1,850 miles [3,000 km].
Then, in 1963, I was invited to a ten-month course of Gilead School at Brooklyn Bethel. During the course, Brother Knorr stressed the importance of having a proper attitude toward work assignments. He said that cleaning bathrooms was an assignment just as important as working in an office. If the bathrooms were not clean, he said, the entire Bethel family and their work would be affected. Later, part of my work at Bethel in Japan was cleaning toilets, and I remembered that counsel.
After returning to Japan, I was again assigned to the traveling work. A couple of years later, in 1966, I married Junko Iwasaki, a special pioneer who served in the city of Matsue. Lloyd Barry, then branch overseer of Japan, gave the heartwarming wedding talk. Junko then joined me in the traveling work.
Our assignments changed in 1968 when I was called into the branch office in Tokyo to do translation work. Because of the shortage of rooms, I commuted from Sumida Ward, Tokyo, and Junko served as a special pioneer with the local congregation. By this time, larger branch facilities were needed. So in 1970 property was purchased in Numazu, not far from Mount Fuji. There, a three-story factory and a residence were built. Before the construction started, several houses on the property were used for the Kingdom Ministry School, which provides training for congregation overseers. I was privileged to teach the school, and Junko prepared meals for the students. It was thrilling to see hundreds of Christian men being given special training for the ministry.
One afternoon, I received an urgent telegram. Mother had been hospitalized and was not expected to live. I took the bullet train to Nagoya and hurried to the hospital. She was unconscious, but I spent the night at her bedside. Mother died early in the morning. As I rode back to Numazu, I could not hold back my tears when I recalled the hard times she had gone through in her life and the affection she had had for me. If it is Jehovah’s will, I will see her again in the resurrection.
We soon outgrew the facilities in Numazu. So 18 acres [7 ha] of land was purchased in Ebina City, and construction of a new branch complex was begun in 1978. Now all available space on this property is covered with factory and residence buildings, as well as an Assembly Hall that seats over 2,800. The latest addition, which consists of two 13-story residences and a 5-level parking/service building, was completed earlier this year. Our Bethel family now numbers about 530, but the enlarged facilities will permit us to accommodate about 900.
Many Reasons for Rejoicing
It has been a thrill to see Bible prophecy fulfilled, yes, to see the ‘small one grow into a mighty nation.’ (Isaiah 60:22) I remember one of my brothers asking me back in 1951, “How many Witnesses are there in Japan?”
“About 260,” I replied.
“Is that all?” he asked in a belittling tone of voice.
I remember thinking, ‘Time will tell how many people Jehovah will draw to his worship in this Shinto-Buddhist country.’ And Jehovah has given the answer! Today, there are no more unassigned territories for preaching in Japan, and the number of true worshipers has swelled to over 222,000 in 3,800 congregations!
The past 44 years of my life in the full-time ministry—32 with my loving wife—have been especially happy ones. For 25 of those years, I have served in the Translation Department at Bethel. In September 1979, I was also invited to be a member of the branch committee of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan.
It has been a privilege and a blessing to have had a small share in helping sincere, peace-loving people to come to Jehovah’s worship. Many have done just as I did—changed from giving devotion to the emperor to worshiping the only true God, Jehovah. It is my sincere desire to help many more to come over to Jehovah’s victorious side and gain endless life in the peaceful new world.—Revelation 22:17.
His father was a faithful Witness who survived the atom-bomb blast over Hiroshima in 1945 while in a Japanese prison. See Awake! of October 8, 1994, pages 11-15.
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School education centered on emperor worship
The Mainichi Newspapers
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In New York with Brother Franz
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With my wife, Junko
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At work in the Translation Department