True Peace on Okinawa

By Amanda Knoke   •   December 1, 2006

April 30, 1945
Okinawa, Japan:

Twelve-year-old Mamoru Kuniyoshi came down from hiding in the mountains, where for a month he, with his mother and four siblings, had been scrambling from cave to cave after the American attack on the island, one of the final battles of World War II. Residents-turned-refugees had run to the mountains for cover amid the din of machine-gun fire and explosions, and had existed on a diet that included frogs and grasshoppers. Upon returning to the village, young Mamoru approached a body laid out on the ground, clad in a shirt filled with bullet holes. The boy was now fatherless.

The “typhoon of steel” that struck this speck of an island 400 miles south of mainland Japan lasted about three months and claimed more lives than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Some 240,000 Japanese and Americans–more than half of them Okinawans caught in the crossfire–perished in the only ground battle fought in Japan. Victims of starvation and suicide were among the war casualties, which also included Mamoru’s mother who, after weeks of endless walking and rationing her own food portions to her children, collapsed and eventually died at a refugee camp. The Kuniyoshi children were sent to an orphanage.

Sixty-one years later, at the same location where Americans had invaded Okinawa, Mamoru Kuniyoshi, pastor of Naha Baptist Church, stood to welcome 6,500 people to the Okinawa Franklin Graham Festival, held Nov. 3-5 at the Chatan Sports Complex.

The neighborhood surrounding the complex, located on the west coast of the island, is known locally as American Village because of the two large military bases nearby. Across the street from the complex, a massive department store bears the sign “JUSCO”: Japan-United States Company, signifying the area as a community of joint relationships and cultures. Indeed, it would become even more so during the three days in November–under the banner of Jesus Christ.

Japanese and Americans Together
Christians make up only about 1 percent of the 1.5 million people on the island of Okinawa and represent fewer than 200 churches averaging in size from 30 to 60. In October 2005, Franklin Graham accepted the invitation of the Japanese clergy to come to Okinawa. Interest in the Festival also grew among 28 “international” churches (made up largely of Americans) and military chapel communities eager to reach the island’s 150,000 English speakers, 40,000 of whom are military personnel.

The language barrier necessitated “two Festivals in one,” according to Festival director Chad Hammond. Both communities had their own meetings and schedules of events leading up to the Festival itself, which even featured two children’s programs. But the Japanese and English-speaking Christians did have joint pre-Festival praise rallies. Shirley Smith, who has lived on the island for a total of four years, said the multiracial rallies were the best part of the preparation. “To get those two communities together has been tremendous,” she said. “Our ministry is for the Japanese and I want them to know I am here to love them. I want to be with them.”

During the months before the Festival, hundreds of Christians overcame barriers of language, culture and lifestyle in order to proclaim the Gospel to their island. Pastors especially were able to develop and nurture relationships that were previously nonexistent.

Greg Hall, pastor of Okinawa Church of God and chairman of the international committee for the Festival, says that as an American he cherished the partnership with Mamoru Kuniyoshi as he began to fully appreciate the significance of the orphaned Okinawan working side-by-side with Christians affiliated with the U.S. military. “I learned that we can work together and that God can mend and heal,” says Hall. “Having an event together like this is a miracle of God … it was healing on multiple levels, not just on an ‘international’ level.”

‘Good People’
Americans love living on Okinawa, and it’s no wonder. In addition to the temperate climate, the island is clean and has a very low crime rate. Expatriates describe Okinawans as good, moral, respectful, submissive, organized, content and healthy. Not overly materialistic, but well off. They are a people who want, and seem to attain, a calm, peaceful life. Not surprisingly, they are known for having one of the longest average life spans in the world.

On the surface, Okinawans do not appear to be in great spiritual need.

Jenny Hall, wife of Greg Hall, has closely observed the people and culture and says that, in an honor-based society, it’s difficult for the Japanese to have a true concept of sin because they are so moral. “If you do something wrong, you dishonor your family, so you don’t do anything wrong,” she says, pointing out that this honor can easily become prideful.

But Hall also notes that the Okinawans’ suicide rate is high. “The spiritual hole in hearts that we talk about in the States is real in every culture,” says Hall. “But, because there are many deities that the Japanese worship, sometimes the Christian God is seen as just one more deity to please. The people don’t understand the sacrificial gift of salvation.”

Why then did more than 30,000 turn out for the Festival? Hall believes that once the Japanese churches understood Operation Andrew–to pray for people, develop a relationship with them, invite them and bring them to the Festival–it caught on, perhaps demonstrating the difference between honor-based and love-based motivation in the kindness of the Christians. “They could see we’re onto something different,” Hall says.

In the Grip of Ancestor Worship
Imagine having no Christian heritage or traditions passed down to you, not from your parents, their parents, your country’s founding fathers or their fathers. No Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon or C.S. Lewis. No singing “Faith of Our Fathers”–for only within the last century and a half has the Bible even been translated into your language, much less studied or absorbed by your people.

Instead, you have a heritage of ancestor worship that dates back to the 1300s.

This was the case for Festival volunteer Rie Moon. Her family, like most families on the island, is entrenched in the practice of worshiping ancestors. Moon, who came to Christ eight years ago, says that the deep respect Okinawans have for their forebears is twisted by the devil. She had no idea it was a sin to worship her ancestors, only that it was a part of her culture.

Incense and food are placed on a home altar, a butsadon, to honor the dead so they will listen to prayers and protect the family. Many try to connect to the ancestors’ spirits through yutas (like shamans) who may tell them, “Your health is bad because you do not pray enough to the ancestor.”

Moon says that Okinawan Christians tend not to evangelize because they fear being cut off from their relatives. “But now,” she says, “they are mobilized for Jesus by the Festival, and it’s much easier during this year. Christians are more bold. And people are prepared in their hearts by the prayer.”

Crossing Cultures for Christ
John Bacigalupo, pastor of Hope Chapel Okinawa, has been married to an Okinawan woman for 36 years, 28 of those on the island. Marrying into an Okinawan family–accompanied by its rituals and traditions–has had its challenges. Though his wife is a Christian, her family is not. Bacigalupo recalls a time he visited his mother-in-law’s house, took a nap on her couch and got slapped because the bottoms of his feet were pointed toward her butsadon cabinet, where the family prays to its ancestors.

The congregation Bacigalupo shepherds includes white, black and Hispanic Americans; Chinese; Japanese and Filipinos. “I’m trying to teach my Japanese members, ‘Don’t pray to the ancestors, but when you pray, pray loud enough so that your family knows you are praying to Jesus.’”

Over the years Bacigalupo has come to see far more opportunities than barriers in reaching this people group he loves. “Americans go to loved ones’ graves and cry and place flowers there, and some families will even have a picnic at a cemetery,” Bacigalupo says. “We don’t pray to them, but we thank God for them.” He points out that it’s only when the Japanese start praying to the dead that their respect becomes sinful.

Bacigalupo says that he has often had occasion to pray at his wife’s family events and that he uses his limited Japanese to let others know that he is praying to Jesus. “No one has ever told me not to pray; no one has ever kicked me out,” he says. “I don’t want to shut the door on people. That stops our opportunity to witness.”

Festival volunteer Belinda-Marie Purkey, who also has a great love for the Japanese, had been going to her neighbors’ festivals and had filled two Operation Andrew prayer cards with her neighbors’ names. Even though the Franklin Graham Festival coincided with one of their important festivals, one family came–and the mother and son responded to the call to commit their lives to Christ.

A New Direction in Life
Beyond the Chatan Sports Complex, the Pacific surf gently laps the shore as the sun sinks, a red ball in the November sky.

Almost like patchwork, blankets fill the grassy area around the track encircling the 5,400 folding chairs on the inner field. One collection of blanket-sitters includes several children folding papers and making origami figures while listening to the opening music groups at the Festival’s final gathering.

Over the three days, the Festival music included gospel, orchestral, hip-hop, contemporary Christian and traditional Okinawan. Each night a local band consisting of Japanese, Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Indians, Filipinos and Brazilians led the audience in praise.

On this final night, Franklin Graham explained how Nicodemus, in John 3, was a religious man, but that his religion could not save him. He needed to be born again. “Being a Buddhist is not enough, being a Catholic is not enough, being a Baptist is not enough, being a Pentecostal or a Methodist is not enough. Worshiping the spirits of your ancestors is not enough,” Franklin said. “None of this can save you.”

After telling how sin separates us from God, Franklin illustrated several of God’s commandments that we break. He detailed the difference between honoring and worshiping our parents: “Dishonoring your parents is a sin against God. It’s important that we honor our parents. But we’re not to worship our ancestors. We are to worship only the one true God.”

Franklin also explained the new birth and the necessity of turning from sin. “The new birth is not a change in your body. It’s a spiritual birth. It’s a new direction of your life. You may ask, ‘What do I have to do? I’m guilty of sin, I know that. The guilt and this shame, I want to be set free from all of it, but I don’t think God will forgive me. You don’t understand all that I have done.’

“But when Jesus Christ went to the cross He took your sins,” Franklin said. “He is the only One in history to take your sins–to pay the debt of sin in your place. Buddha didn’t die for your sins. No other person has paid the debt of sin, but Jesus did. … You are coming to God through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. You have to reject all other gods and take Christ by faith. Will you do that?”

Taking Care of ‘New Babies’ Together
Over three days, more than 1,700 people responded to the call to make a commitment to Jesus Christ.

After hearing Franklin say that ancestral worship is sin, one woman said she wanted her sins to be forgiven. Through tears she committed her life to Christ. Because the butsadon in her family’s home belongs to the eldest man, she does not have the authority to remove it, but she can refuse to bow down to it.

A family of three also wanted to begin living for Christ: an American father, an Okinawan mother and their 9-year-old son. A Japanese counselor spoke with the wife, an American counselor with the father. The boy told his English-speaking counselor that he had felt Jesus calling him forward. The boy’s excitement built as he learned more about God’s promise of salvation. He was eager to pray.

“I have only experienced seeing pure joy on someone’s face a few times in my life, and this was one of them,” said his counselor. “The immense joy I saw fill this boy told me that Jesus was truly with him. It took a lot to hold back my tears.” The counselor asked if the boy wanted to high five or hug, and the boy gave him a big hug. Since then the two have spoken on the phone, and the boy said he has spent every recess time reading the literature his counselor gave him.

Some American counselors stepped out of their comfort zones to counsel Japanese inquirers, using broken Japanese and gestures. Holding their English versions of the counseling materials alongside the Japanese versions, the counselors led the inquirers through the information that detailed a relationship with Christ. The Japanese inquirers signaled their understanding with nods, and the conversations sometimes concluded with a hug after the prayer, as inquirer and counselor both acknowledged they clearly understood what had just happened.

Christians realize the work ahead of them now, discipling a 15 percent addition to the church community, including many with no previous foundation of Christianity. But Tamotsu Uchimura, the interpreter for Franklin Graham and pastor of New Life Chapel, was euphoric as the Festival concluded and people filtered off the field. “We will be busy to take care of the new babies,” he said, referring to those who had responded to the call to commit their lives to Christ. Despite the differences in language, culture and strategy, the Japanese and American Christians had come together for the sake of Christ. “It is almost like we are husband and wife–the Okinawans and the Americans,” said Uchimura. “And once we are married … God does not want divorce.”

The day after the Festival ended, Jenny Hall recalled the image of hundreds of people standing before the platform each evening to commit their lives to Christ. “Their families will no longer want them at family functions, and they will not be welcome at funerals,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “They are breaking molds to even consider Christianity.” ©2006 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

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