As Americans commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, some Christians also are remembering a series of evangelistic harvests that emerged from the death and destruction.
Among those to find a saving relationship with Jesus in the aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941, were the commander of the Japanese air fleet that carried out the attack, Japanese Buddhists in Hawaii and other Hawaii residents who heard the preaching of missionaries recalled from East Asia.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
‘Impressed & captivated’ by Christ
Capt. Mitsuo Fuchida of the Japanese Imperial Navy was perhaps the most high-profile participant in the Pearl Harbor attack to find salvation years later.
Leader of the 360 planes that killed 2,403 Americans in a surprise attack, Fuchida survived six plane crashes in World War II before being handed a gospel tract in 1950 at a Tokyo railroad station, according to a report by Fuchida published in 1951 by Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder newsjournal.
The tract told the testimony of American soldier Jacob DeShazer, who was captured by the Japanese during the war then came to faith in Christ in captivity through reading the Bible.
“With a desire to read the Bible, I purchased one and started reading,” Fuchida wrote. “Before covering the first thirty pages, my mind was strongly impressed and captivated.”
Fuchida “was convinced,” he wrote, that he “should first of all become a good Christian.” So he contacted the company that published the tract and was shown “from the Bible how to become a Christian. I then opened my heart and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior on April 14, 1950.”
Within months of Fuchida’s conversion, he found himself participating in an evangelistic campaign in Nagoya, Japan, with Southern Baptist missionary W.H. “Dub” Jackson, a former American fighter pilot.
Jackson, 92, told Baptist Press (BP) he remembers standing atop a Chevrolet panel truck with Fuchida as both shared their testimonies, inviting onlookers to attend evangelistic meetings and calling them to faith in Christ.
“I thought, ‘How amazing. Here is a guy that was against us a few [years] before, and now both of us are witnessing for the Lord on top of this Chevrolet,’” said Jackson, who went on to lead Southern Baptists in partnership evangelism campaigns around the world.
A decade later, Jackson encountered Fuchida again in Dallas at the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ annual evangelism conference and learned the former Japanese commander had become a Presbyterian evangelist – a capacity in which he served until his death in 1976, appearing alongside Billy Graham on at least one occasion.
‘A great influx of Christians’
In Hawaii, the evangelistic harvest following Pearl Harbor began within a year.
The day following the bombing, martial law was declared on the islands. Buddhist temples and Japanese language schools were closed in an effort to limit gatherings of Japanese people that could be used to communicate intelligence information to the Japanese government.
As a result, some Japanese Buddhist parents began sending their children to Christian churches in an effort to find an alternate source of spiritual instruction.
Chris Martin, executive director of the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention, said the religious liberty of Buddhists was not seen as “of importance” at the time compared to the perceived threat to national security. He noted indignities committed against Japanese-Americans like imprisonment in internment camps.
Still, Edith Gima, 87, a Japanese-American believer who has lived near Pearl Harbor since before the attack, told BP “many of the Buddhist kids came to the churches, and some of them became Christians.”
After the war, “some reverted back to Buddhism,” said Gima, a member of First Baptist Church in Wahiawa, Hawaii. “But we did have people who were Buddhist that came to our churches.”
One Buddhist woman from the island of Molokai, Gima said, became a Christian at a Baptist congregation on Oahu while seeking medical treatment in the Honolulu area. When she went back to Molokai, she started a Sunday School in a Buddhist temple, and the group became Kaunakakai Baptist Church.
Mori Hiratani, 88, also was among the Japanese-American Buddhists to receive Christ in the wake of Pearl Harbor.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he was riding his bike to a Buddhist temple on Oahu when he saw Japanese planes attacking nearby Wheeler Army Airfield and was forced to return home. With Buddhist temple attendance eliminated from his routine, Hiratani began attending a Baptist congregation about a year later and was saved.
Hiratani went on to serve 47 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Pearl City, Hawaii, before retiring in 2002.
“At least at Wahiawa Baptist Church [today First Baptist Wahiawa], there was a great influx of Christians” following the U.S. entry to World War II, Hiratani told BP. Of church members “my age, there were 17 people who surrendered to the Lord’s ministry … some Japanese. There were also Koreans and Chinese.”
A convention is born
Among the fruit of the post-Pearl Harbor influx of believers to Hawaii Baptist churches was the establishment of the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention in 1943, Martin said.
Southern Baptist missionaries had been fleeing Japanese aggression in East Asia since the late 1920s, Martin said, but the flow of missionaries increased after 1941, with those workers bolstering Baptist ministries in the islands.
“Some of our historic leaders in the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention were born-again Buddhists, who as children during these times were led to Christ by the missionaries,” Martin said.
“The war had so many incredible negative aspects for Japanese residents here,” Martin said. Yet it “really opened people to see and understand the gospel because of the hardships.”
Martin added, “As far as the Kingdom work is concerned in Hawaii, all the results of war in our early days were very advantageous to the proclamation of the gospel here.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)