The first Protestant missionaries ever to come to Japan were mostly from the U.S.A. When they came to this strange land of Buddhists and sun-worshippers they found no Christians. Today, 100 years after their arrival, one out of every 200 persons is a Christian. I agree, one half of one per cent is a small amount. Now we must go to the remaining 199 who have never heard the name of Jesus, and lead them to the light. For we have the Great Commission given by Christ specifically demanding of us that we go and teach all nations regarding salvation through Him. This is a divine command and every Christian conscience ought to be quick to obey. Pagen life is not merely devoid of Christian morality. It is a life without peace, since the pagan is told that there is no reconciliation with the spirits and the gods. And awaiting him is death, which, he believes, at best can only obliterate him.
I would like to describe for you my past life as a Buddhist and Shintoist. My younger brother died when I was about six years of age. At his death-bed my grandmother said that somebody should keep a constant watch over the body because an evil spirit might steal his soul. I offered to stay with him. It was the first funeral ever to occur in our happy household. We were religiously indifferent, happy and contented in a new house in a Tokyo suburb. I was the eldest son, ready to enter grade school I had three younger brothers, one three years of age and twin brothers still younger. It was one of the twins that had died. And then death came a second time into our family as another brother passed away.
Now departed souls came to exist in our family, called Japanese ‘ho-toke’. The presence of hotoke meant that we must rely on Buddhism to worship them because, according to common Buddhist belief, failure to worship hotoke means that the souls of the departed will suffer in hell, and we will be cursed by them in this life.
Buddhist Worship of the Dead
So we bought an altar. It was a detailed model of the interior of a Buddhist temple which measured two feet wide, two feet deep, and three feet high. On its platform my mother placed an offering of a small bowl of rice, a glass of water, and two small candles, which were lit each morning All of us sat before it and worshipped the hotoke who were supposed to be comforted by our prayers as we repeated them: “Nam ami dabatsu...” My father would read the Buddhist Canon, which appeased the hokote.
At festivals we went to the temple where our brothers were buried. We obtained fire from the candle at the tomb to light our candles, and brought them home with us in a lantern by bus and train. Hotoke was then supposed to have followed the fire from the cemetery above which they hovered since the festival started, to rest when they came home with us. Then we treated them with special offerings of fine dinners, sweets and attentions We worshipped them clothed in our best apparel. I often placed on the altar my handicraft work or report cards from school so that my brothers could see them and gain a taste of the life they missed. My mother often addressed each one affectionately by name, and then burst afresh into tears.
Though for me there could hardly have been a sweeter home, yet our family had been irreparably broken into two parts: the living and the dead. According to common Buddhist teaching, these two stand in a cause and effect relationship. If the living ones worship hotoke they will be peaceful and happy and the spirits will bless the living. If not, then hotoke will fall into the torture of the fire, and they will seek revenge upon the living for that suffering. Thus the grim shadow of death followed every one of us and often overtook us to cast us into the terror of death. Fear of death was the compelling motive for worshipping hotoke. Death is the real theme of such religion. The chief purpose of Buddhism is to further the happiness of the dead, and to enable its devotees to face death with a calm attitude.
Before Buddhism had taken a very deep hold upon my mind I was in grade school. Religiously the Japanese grade schools, prior to World War II, were training grounds for Shintoisim, which with Buddhism is one of Japan’s major religions. Every morning all the pupils gathered in the school yard to listen to the principal speak to us on morals, current events, and the history of the Japanese people as descendants of the gods. We were taught that Japan was superior to all other nations. She was especially beloved of the gods, and her Emperor was a direct descendant of a goddess of the Sun. Japan had never been subjected to a foreign power because this goddess protected her. And now it was Japan’s duty to protect the eastern Asiatic races from further colonization and save all Asiatics by the power of the Sun goddess, in order that they might be brought under her divine benevolence.
These doctrines were also taught in the classrooms. Shushin, or ethics, was a subject taught throughout grade school for one hour per week. In this course we learned about the world’s greatest men of war, virtue, social reform, etc. We learned about George Washington and the cherry tree incident, and were admonished to imitate him. We learned about Abraham Lincoln and his noble achievements. But the core of true ethical behavior was represented as being something deeper. That was the Shinto belief in the divinity of the emperor, the eternity of the soul which dies for the cause of the nation, and the loftiness of the ideal of the Eastern Asiatic Co-prosperity Sphere. In short, I was trained to be a rigid believer in a divine emperor, to be a thorough-going nationalist, and an idealist who would give up his life for the sake of the country.
I need not explain how this false optimism was built up to a higher pitch by the deceitful propaganda of the militarists as the war progressed, nor how we steadfastly endured the hardships incurred by the carrying out of this allegedly holy war. When I was a 14-yearold boy the War came to an abrupt and unexpected end. I could see that we were on the verge of losing the war. But I could not understand why it had to end in our complete defeat. What had happened to the Sun goddess and to our thousands of war gods and our strong military forces under the protection of these divine powers?
And yet the reality of defeat was unmistakable, since the emperor himself, the voice of a living god, was heard by radio announcing our total defeat. The years following were miserable. I have no heart nor pen to describe this misery. Scarcity of material things on the one hand and an unheard-of increase of spiritual and moral decay on the other were common features of that period. Worst of all, in our hearts was a great vacuum. We did not know what to believe, or what we might hope for. All our ideals were shattered.
It was in the midst of such a time that I heard my first Christian message. While taking a walk near my home I passed an old barrack which a farmer was using for some purpose. I heard singing. I went to see who was singing and discovered about a dozen people singing hymns. They invited me to enter. Since some of them were friends, I did go in. Soon I was listening to a Holiness preacher. He talked about the righteousness of God and the unrighteousness of man. He stressed that all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags compared to God’s righteousness. He pointed out the necessity of obtaining righteousness to escape God’s judgment and the impossibility of doing so by ourselves. That was about all I could get but it made a deep impression since it was entirely different from anything I had heard before.
Mere curiosity drove me to this simple meeting place to hear Christians sing, talk, and preach. But in a short while it became evident that the claim of this God was greater than I had first thought. God was presented as the Righteous One who was at the same time merciful, and in His mercy He had made a great sacrifice in order to redeem us from sin and misery. Jesus Christ was this sacrifice. I could not see how He could be the Son of God and at the same time be born of a woman. But I could see that God would accept a perfect Substitute in my place and that if our sins were forgiven we might be very happy now. That was all I could learn after six months in this mission chapel. You can be sure that I was very happy with that small amount of knowledge!
But in the strange providence of God, the Holiness mission station closed. I was then directed to a Kyodan church (Japan’s largest Protestant denomination). This particular church was of very little help as far as my spiritual need was concerned, however.
Up to that time I owned a copy of the New Testament only. Now I obtained a copy of the entire Bible, and started reading it. That did not seem to help me much either. After about ten months I lost interest in church attendance. However, I did have a desire to learn more about Jesus Christ, and I tried to gain this knowledge at home by reading the Bible. But I had lost interest in church attendance, and gave my time to school work, hobbies, etc. The Bible was always on my desk, however, and I read it often. But I read it only as if it were just another “best seller.”
But soon this book made me uneasy. I could not fully understand many things it said. And what I could understand I questioned. For example: The Bible says that there is only One who is God. Why should I not believe that there are many more? About sin and judgment: What was wrong with Confucius and his moral teaching? About this Jesus: Why should I believe that He was something special as a man? Why should I believe that He is a Substitute indeed, and the only acceptable One with God? Basic to all these questions was this one: On what authority should I receive what the Bible declares? I was willing to accept the Bible and to pay far more serious consideration to its challenges if only I could be persuaded to do so by some authority. For I had accepted Buddhism upon the authority of my parents and Shintoism upon the authority of such superiors as my school teachers, the Emperor, etc.
In desperation I turned to the one place which I had been told was a source of authority in Christian doctrine—a nearby Franciscan monastery. There a monk undertook to instruct me, and I was soon taught to pray to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Quickly it dawned on me, however, that praying to Mary had no Biblical support. This raised the question, “What kind of authority is it that dares to tell a poor, ignorant, wretched sinner to put his trust in something greater than the Bible itself?” I felt that this was not an answer to my search for an authority by which I could accept the Bible as God’s Word to me. The result of this disappointment was so great that I seriously considered the awful possibility of suicide! For a number of months I was in deep depression, quite sure that there was no light to lead me out of my despair.
By way of a friend who himself did not follow any established religion I came to hear of Rev. Takeshi Matsuo of the Reformed Church of Japan. This friend presented me with a copy of a magazine related to that church, and I immediately sensed that I was now being led to the discovery of the answer to my soul’s great difficulty. Near to my home was a congregation of the Reformed Church of Japan, and here I was taught that the Bible is God’s Word, that He is its infallible author, and that He has by His own act of inspiration caused men to write that which is His own Word indeed.
Although I received this teaching with reluctance and in connection with a real struggle, I found that I now coveted salvation in Christ and yearned to be accounted as one of the people of God. The Bible became more precious to me because of its great message of salvation by faith in Christ. No longer did I read it with the eyes of the skeptic, for my heart was seeking help from this divine revelation and with a sense of deepest comfort I took note of its sweet words of invitation, “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near.”
Burdens were lifted! New vistas of life opened up! Past things took on another meaning for me. For it was God who sought me, and not I who had sought him. He had guided me through all the difficult years of war and post-war distress. He had used a non-Christian friend to direct me to the Church. Receiving additional instruction I knew that I could no longer delay, and that I must believe the Gospel as presented in Scripture. Conviction of sin took hold of me, and I knew the sorrow after God for my sin. I was enabled to see that the life and death of Jesus was something of radical significance for me. For He is the Son of God, a unique person in history by the conception of the Holy Spirit born of a virgin, an unblemished sacrifice for sin made upon Calvary. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be a propitiation for all our sins.
Six months after I started attending this church I was invited to make confession of faith, and on Easter of 1949 I was baptized. Thus I found the One whom I had sought for three years-or rather, I was found by the One who seeks the lost. What a joy it was, and what a joy it continues to be, being mortified with Christ in order to live for Him, to God’s glory and honor!
As I relate this to you as Christians living in a predominantly Christian country I would like to appeal to you to remember the people of other lands, those who do not know God nor His Christ. Among them are missing sheep and erring prodigals whom God loves. And they must be gained by the way of the preaching of the glad tidings of the Gospel, that they may call upon Jesus Christ for their salvation, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” May we all have a share in this great work of evangelizing the world!
Cornelius K. Iida was a student at Calvin Theological Seminary when he wrote this article.