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Japan: An Odyssey of Faith

The Remarkable Story of Ryohachi Shigekuni

By Lindy Adams

The Christian Chronicle - Pioneering missionary
J.M. McCaleb first went to Japan before the dawning
of the 20th century. His work in evangelizing a non-
western culture encouraged others to leave home and
move to Asian countries. The names Sarah Andrews,
Hettie Lee Ewing, the Foxes, the Rhodes, the Bixlers
and the Moreheads have come down to us as the great
missionary leaders of Japan before World War II.

Another figure, hardly known except in Japan and among the early missionaries, is Ryohachi Shigekuni. His story is an integral part of that history of north central Japan, the area often called the Japanese "Bible belt."

He traveled to the United States, looking for his fortune, and he found Jesus Christ. His good fortune was a faith that survived the ordeal of being viewed as an American spy throughout World War II and being at ground zero when the war ended, and the church began a major revival.

The Shigekuni family is as important in the history of the church in Japan as are the Hardemans, Baxters and Youngs for the United States.

The power of the Shigekuni story touched Harris Ives, an American who has taught on the faculty of Ibaraki Christian University for more than 20 years. He has worked with the Yoshiaki and Nobuyuki Shigekuni, the son and grandson of this patriarch of Christian faith in Ibaraki Prefecture. In this article, Ives shares their journey to faith.— BAILEY McBRIDE, Editor

By Harris G. Ives

The Christian Chronicle - It is a blustery March afternoon in Ibaraki, Japan, and I have just finished lunch with Yoshiaki Shigekuni, retired principal of Ibaraki Christian High School. I invited him to join me at Mikano Shokudo restaurant near the campus to rehearse the wonderful story of his family’s three generations of Christian work on two continents.

It was a slow day for the restaurant, and I was glad for it; the quiet lent the respect the story deserved. We ate lunch in silence and following after-lunch coffee, I devoted full attention to Shigekuni. I held my warm cup in both hands and listened eagerly.

All Christians embark upon a great odyssey when they are baptized, of course, but for some people the elements of ships, sojourns and strange lands are especially vivid parts of the family collective memory.

Silent Yearnings

In 1911, Japan entered the Taisho Period, marked by the gradual shift from an agricultural to industrial economy. It was the beginning of democratic reforms. Although the availability of university education for the general population was still in the future,
a few women were able to enter medical school. Poor farmers of the time, however, realized few of the much-touted benefits of the better times.

Toraichiro Shigekuni was a poor farmer in Hiroshima Prefecture at the beginning of the 20th century. He and his wife, Fusa, had six children, of which Ryohachi (later to become the first Christian in his family) was the second child.

Discouraged by his inability to achieve economic success in Japan, the father went to Seoul, Korea. Hoping to find a fortune there, he was accompanied by his 10-year-old son, Ryohachi. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910, and Toraichiro had a married daughter living in Seoul. He and Ryohachi lived with her.

The relocated father and son found very few opportunities to improve their finances in the new country. Within two years, Toraichiro died in the foreign land. Ryohachi returned by ship to Japan. He resumed life with his mother and siblings in Hiroshima.

The Ship

Little is known about the life and activities of the repatriated youth. One can only imagine that he took on his father’s obsession to improve the family’s lot.

Yearning for a second chance at earning a living abroad, he devised a plan to work on a ship sailing for America.

In 1920, at the age of 20, Ryohachi set sail for America. During the month-long crossing, Ryohachi did dishwashing and other odd jobs. Upon his landing at Long Beach, California, Ryohachi met his uncle, Yonetaro, and his wife, Shizuyo.

They had arrived in America, five years earlier. Soon, Ryohachi was working with his uncle in the gardening business.

The Strange Land

One of the family stories repeated at gatherings to this day is "the shooting incident." An assailant fired a gunshot at young Ryohachi as he was cutting grass. The tie that he wore (isn’t it interesting that proper form for some people demands a tie even during manual labor?) was flapping in the wind as the bullet pierced it. The young man was startled but unhurt. No reason was given for the attack, but one may surmise that racial prejudice was at least a possible motive. Later he found employment at the Alameda Salt Company.

By his own account, Ryohachi eventually became "rich" in America, spending his new-found wealth on several cars. Perhaps in this more relaxed environment he acquired the happy, joking personality he was later noted for. A much-photographed man (there are enough good quality pictures of the three generations of Shigekunis to fill a footlocker), Ryohachi Shigekuni often lightened up the mood of group pictures with his great smile. There is a beach scene photograph of him with church members in Japan — there he is radiant and flush with the joy of fellowship. He may have found wealth and the joker’s personality in America, but more significantly, he found the Lord in Los Angeles.

The Sojourn

At some point during his seven years in America, Ryohachi became involved with the West Side Church of Christ (originally called the Central Church of Christ) which has served the Japanese-American Christian community for many years. A Christian adventurer, Don Carlos Janes, happened to stop by the congregation after an all-around-the-world voyage on the ship, The Cedric. Janes, who had visited Japan, apparently sought yet another opportunity to associate himself with kinsmen of the people who had impressed him on his voyage. It seems he was at Westside just long enough to baptize young Ryohachi.

The new convert influenced his own family. Yonetaro, the uncle, and several other relatives were baptized. Another often-told story in the family through the generations concerns the death of Yonetaro’s young daughter. Just before her passing, the little child cautioned her family not to worry, "I am going to heaven." Uncle Yonetaro and his family may have been especially receptive to hearing the Gospel from Ryohachi if he could teach them how they might see the child again in heaven someday.

Ryohachi met O.D. Bixler in Los Angeles at this time. It must have been exciting for Ryohachi to converse with this man who had such a great love for missionary work among the Japanese. Bixler had served in Japan as missionary in the 1920s, and would soon return. The relationship, cemented in those early days in America, was to achieve even deeper levels in the future. Ryohachi Shigekuni eventually was to be a neighbor and church worker with him again in Japan.

The Sharing

In 1927, Ryohachi returned to his homeland. The ship sailed from Long Beach and stopped in San Francisco. Amazingly, Ryohachi made the acquaintance of the Rhodes family who got on board. The Rhodes, missionaries from the church of Christ, were returning to Japan. When the ship docked at Yokohama, the new friends went in different directions: the Rhodes went north to Omiya; Ryohachi went to Tokyo where he immediately sought out J.M. McCaleb who, by some accounts, is the first missionary of the church of Christ in Japan. Ryohachi lived and worked with him for one year.

After his time with McCaleb, Shigekuni relocated to Ibaraki Prefecture where he was reacquainted with O.D. Bixler. There was a young Christian woman, Haruko, in the employ of the missionary family. In 1929, Ryohachi and Haruko were married. The couple moved to Ota City in Ibaraki Prefecture where they helped Barney Morehead who built the King Bible School, a precursor to Ibaraki Christian University, which serves its community until this day.

Barney Morehead, a graduate of David Lipscomb College was among the few college graduates on the missionary field in Japan at that time. Having operated a successful bookstore business in America, he devoted five years of his life to the Christian work in Japan. Upon his return to America, he became a self-appointed recruiter for missionaries. In the dispatch of those duties, Morehead contacted many American congregations, once joyfully musing that "I have visited more congregations of the Churches of Christ than anyone else!" One of his gifts to the Japanese people was the creation of the King Bible School. Ryohachi Shigekuni allied himself with Moorehead in this work.

In 1930, the Bixler family returned to America; Harry Fox, Sr. and family moved from Fukushima Prefecture into Ota and assumed the work left by the Bixlers. The Fox family remained in Ota for five years before going back to the United States.

George Pepperdine made a world tour in 1930 and visited Ota Church of Christ. His generous monetary gift allowed for the furtherance of Christian work. One of the direct results of this gift was the establishment of Michisilbe, a monthly Christian journal that was of much comfort to the Japanese.

Sumiaki Horiguchi was one of the frequent writers for this journal. The Shigekuni and Horiguchi families became very close friends. There are wonderful black and white photos extant which show these families and other Christians. Included in the pictures are two cute toddlers: Yoshiaki Shigekuni and Michiko Horiguchi. Introduced as toddlers, they were to marry many years later.

By this time, the pre-war tension made it necessary for the Americans to think about leaving the country they evangelized and had come to love.

At the outbreak of the war, the Shigekunis found themselves maintaining the small dairy, which the Bixlers had operated. Neighbors had become suspicious of the Shigekunis, whose fellowship with American Christians was well known.

To monitor foreign influence,the government required all Protestant churches to band together as the Kyodan Church. The Shigekuni family did not participate, and the doors of the Ota Church remained closed for the duration of the war.

Yoshiaki Shigekuni, son of Ryohachi, remembers staying out of school for two years — his presence would not be welcomed among the Japanese who were suspicious of the Christians.

The Reunions

Happier times resumed with the end of the war in 1945. Harry Fox returned that very year, although his stay was brief. From October to January he came in the capacity of an American government employee assigned to inspect the damage of the war. The doors of Ota Church opened again. They operated from the facilities of the King Bible School.

The Beginnings of Ibaraki Christian

In 1948, Ryohachi Shigekuni, O.D. Bixler, Shunzo Asano and Shoji Oka formed a committee that mapped out plans to build a Christian high school. Yoshiaki Shigekuni attended the high school that his father helped erect. He graduated from the junior college in 1954. Although he had studied Bible and English in college, he did a brief stint as a seller of men’s trousers in a Tokyo department store. Soon, however, he was involved in missionary work in Yokohama, Yoyogihachiman and Okinawa. He did Christian work on that island for one year, from 1956-1957.

Upon his return to the mainland (Okinawa was controlled by the United States at that time), Yoshiaki married Michiko (the toddler sitting near him in family photos). He attended Aoyama Gakuen Seminary to further his religious studies and within a few years was teaching English and Bible classes at Ibaraki Christian junior and senior high schools. He was principal of the high school from 1989 until his retirement in 1994.

Haruko Shigekuni died in February 1964. Ryohachi buried his wife in the tomb at the Nogeiyama Church of Christ. Just a few months later, on May 21, Ryohachi himself would be buried alongside her.

Nobuyuki Shigekuni, son of Yoshiaki, grandson of Ryohachi works in the admissions office of the university. Together the two men perform various tasks at the small Ota Church of Christ.

Nobuyuki (a third generation Christian on both sides of his family) often leads singing, and Yoshiaki does many things. He seems most pleased, however, with long-time duty of baking the communion bread.

The family is decidedly international — Yoshiaki’s oldest son is just returning with his family from a long-term job in New Jersey.
Comfortable in English and Japanese, the members of this extended family are a great encouragement to the Americans who come to Ibaraki to help with the work.