“Japan Eighty Years Ago,” Ensign, Aug. 1981, 76–77
Eighteen-year-old Alma Taylor was among the first missionaries to arrive in Japan in 1901, a mission that lasted nine years, including five years as mission president. The party left Salt Lake City on July 24, and Alma noted in his journal: “We were indeed going pioneering on pioneer day.” They sailed from Portland, Oregon, to Yokohama. Tickets cost $100.
News of their arrival had preceded them, and they found it difficult to find lodgings or obtain any information from the religious ministers who were already proselyting in Japan. Reading the English newspapers, largely printed for the foreign communities in Japan, Alma noticed “severe and slanderous” articles about Mormonism but optimistically noted that “we are getting advertized freely.”
On Christmas, which the missionaries celebrated together with presents from home, he wrote in his journal, “I hope that by the next Christmas that I will have received from my Heavenly Father that gift which I so much long for, namely, the knowledge of this language so that I may preach the Gospel of the man whose birth these days commemorate.”
Elder Taylor was an interested and appreciative observer of Japanese customs and left lively descriptions of his first rickshaw ride, his first Japanese bath, a typical New Year’s Day celebration, and his chagrin at inadvertently attracting marriage proposals from young women.
The first baptism was 8 March 1902 of a former Shinto priest, Hajime Nakazawa, on the beach at Tokyo. “This was the first baptism [Elder Heber J.] Grant had ever performed in the mission field, consequently his joy was all the greater.” A second baptism of Brother Kikuchi (his relationship to Elder Kikuchi, if any, is unknown) followed on March 10. The first all-member gathering was sacrament meeting on April 13, followed by the first cottage meeting in the Orient on April 20.
In July, Elder Taylor was assigned to translate the Book of Mormon. He confided to his journal, “While my heart throbs with gratitude unspeakable for the honor conferred upon me, yet everytime I contemplate the magnitude and importance of the work before me and the responsibility it places upon me, I fear and tremble from head to foot and sense a weakness such as I have never before known.” He took courage from a powerful blessing that set him apart, and labored faithfully on the project for almost five years until it was finished.
Despite Elder Taylor’s cheerful optimism and loving work, the progress of the gospel in Japan was not smooth, Between 1901 and 1924, when President Heber J. Grant closed the Japan Mission due to international conditions, there were seven mission presidents, eighty-eight missionaries, and only 166 baptisms.
The interruption in missionary work lasted until 1948, after World War II, although some Latter-day Saint soldiers in the army of Occupation between 1945 and 1948 had begun unofficial proselyting and had organized meetings and Sunday School classes in several cities.
Japanese members now regard their bumpy beginnings with affection as a “difficult seed time,” appreciative for the devotion of the few members who were baptized despite cultural and linguistic obstacles and who remained faithful despite decades of isolation. The work of each new generation of missionaries has cultivated “increasingly fertile soil,” and the current success of the Church is due to the combined efforts of diligent missionaries and equally diligent members.