The Blossoming of the Church in Japan

“The Blossoming of the Church in Japan,” Ensign, Oct. 1992, 32

The Blossoming of the Church in Japan

In 1948, Japan was reopened for missionary work. Since then, the rise of the Church there has been impressive by any standard.

Despite its bleak beginnings, the Church in Japan has grown remarkably since the reopening of the Japanese Mission in 1948. By then, most of the obstacles that led to the demise of the first mission had disappeared, heralding a new dawn for the Church in the “land of the rising sun.”

Japan’s deeply rooted cultural heritage and solidarity have traditionally repelled most foreign influences, including the gospel preached there by Latter-day Saint missionaries from 1901 to 1924. Few Japanese dared to renounce State Shinto and adopt what seemed an alien religion, for doing so could be interpreted as dishonoring both family and country. Even though Japan has become increasingly modernized since World War II, most of its people continue to maintain centuries-old customs and beliefs.

Such conditions make missionary work challenging but its fruits all the more impressive. Postwar progress of the Church in Japan is best appreciated against the backdrop of the early mission, whose struggles accentuate recent strides.

The Early Mission Closes

Prospects for the success of the Japanese Mission were not encouraging from the start. Several weeks before Elder Heber J. Grant organized the mission, President Lorenzo Snow confided to him that just as Noah preached 120 years but failed to save the people, “the Lord has not revealed to me that [the missionaries called to Japan] will succeed, but He has shown me that it is their duty to go.”1

In addition, the missionary force was small (ranging from eight to twenty during the mission), the language was difficult to master, and cultural differences rendered the usual Latter-day Saint proselyting methods ineffective.

Not surprisingly, the conversion rate was so slow that many missionaries grew disheartened despite sporadic successes. This pattern continued throughout the mission. Ten years of diligent missionary work yielded 51 members. By 1918 there were 105, and by the close of the mission in 1924, 174 converts had been baptized, with only a small number of them attending church.2

The harvest of souls was so meager that Church leaders grew increasingly concerned. In 1921 Elder David O. McKay toured the Japanese Mission, studied its challenges, and made recommendations for revitalizing the missionary work there. His plans to expand the missionary force and upgrade proselyting techniques brought immediate but short-lived success; within a few years, the work slumped again.

Map of Japan

Map by Beth Maryon Whittaker

Foreshadowing the closing of the Japanese Mission in August 1924 were the 1923 earthquake and fire that razed most of Tokyo and Yokohama and deteriorating Japanese-American relations due to restrictive U.S. immigration laws.


With the mission closed, President Grant constantly brooded over the isolated Japanese Saints and looked for the time when the gospel could again be taught to those people. In the interim, a faithful Saint, Fujiya Nara (who passed away this year), helped keep Church members unified by publishing a newsletter called Shuro (“The Palm”), which appeared from 1925 through 1929. In 1927, the First Presidency appointed Brother Nara presiding elder in Japan and permitted the Saints there to act more fully in priesthood functions. When Brother Nara’s railway job took him to Manchuria in 1933, Church leaders found his replacement in BYU-educated Takeo Fujiwara.

In 1926, BYU president Franklin S. Harris had visited Japan to organize the MIA (with Brother Nara as president). While there he met Brother Fujiwara and invited him to attend BYU. Brother Fujiwara became the first Japanese to graduate from BYU. In 1934, shortly after his graduation, he accepted the call to serve in Japan as presiding elder and special missionary. He shepherded the Japanese Saints faithfully until his early death from pleurisy in 1936.

When President Grant visited Hawaii in 1935 to organize the Oahu Stake, he was pleased to see missionary work proceeding so well among the Japanese residents there. Credit for the success was partly due to Sister Tsune Nachie, who had done temple work for many Japanese in addition to preaching the gospel among the Japanese in Hawaii nearly every day since 1923.

Recognizing that years might pass before missionaries could again preach in Japan, President Grant saw great opportunity in the Church’s success among the Japanese of Hawaii. In 1936, he called Hilton A. Robertson and his wife, Hazel, to preside over the soon-to-be-organized Japanese Mission in Hawaii. The Robertsons arrived in Honolulu in February 1937 and were joined in October by the first three missionaries assigned to that mission.

Progress was steady: membership grew from 17 in 1937 to 150 in 1941, with nearly all members fully active. When war erupted in 1941, the missionary force in Hawaii dwindled. However, many Japanese continued to join the Church in Hawaii, and membership doubled a year later in what was then called the Central Pacific Mission.2

A Door Reopened

After the war ended in August 1945, missionary work among the Japanese in Hawaii increased as new missionaries arrived. By 1950, when the Central Pacific Mission and Hawaiian Mission were combined to create the Hawaii Mission, baptisms in the Central Pacific Mission since 1937 totaled 671. Also, many of those converts later served in responsible Church positions.

The refounding of the Japanese Mission in 1948 had direct ties to the Central Pacific Mission: Hawaii resident Edward L. Clissold directed the mission from early 1943 until 1944 when, because he was a reserve naval officer, he was placed on active duty. Brother Clissold was then sent to Japan to work in the Education and Religion Section of Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP).

During a two-month tour of duty, Brother Clissold became acquainted with many LDS servicemen as well as with some SCAP officers who were influential in the development of religious affairs policy in postwar Japan.3 His work there proved to be a blessing when the Japanese Mission was reopened on 6 March 1948. As mission president, he dealt with many of the people he had worked with during his military assignment.

Creating a solid foundation for the new mission was crucial. The First Presidency charged President Clissold to preside over existing members, to organize the Church there, to establish a mission headquarters, and to arrange for missionaries to once again enter the nation. Once a permanent headquarters was found (a fire-damaged mansion in the prestigious Azabu area of Tokyo was bought in April 1948 and remodeled by November4), the stage was set for further progress.

On 26 June 1948, the first LDS missionaries to serve in the Japanese Mission arrived: Paul C. Andrus, Harrison T. and Raymond C. Price, Wayne McDaniel, and Koji Okauchi (a nisei, or second-generation American of Japanese ancestry).5 Some members converted during the days of the early mission were still actively participating in the Church to the extent that they could do so without official Church organization. In fact, the day after President Clissold’s first visit to Japan, he attended a Sunday School class directed by Fujiya Nara. With forty-three people in attendance, that group became the nucleus of the Ogikubo Branch organized later that year. Other longtime members were found, and they joined with the Saints.6

Changes in Japanese life after World War II made conditions ripe for the preaching of the gospel. The Emperor renounced his claims to divinity and disbanded the state religion of Shinto. SCAP imposed a policy of total religious freedom that became part of the Japanese constitution of 1947. For the first time in memory, the Japanese people could exercise freedom of religion.

Even before the mission had officially opened, LDS military personnel had paved the way with contributions of time, service, teaching, leadership, and money. Postwar missionaries to Japan were further aided by translations of LDS scripture, hymns, and a few missionary tracts from the early mission.

Tatsui and Chiyo Sato and their son, Yasuo, were taught the gospel by servicemen Boyd K. Packer, Ray Hanks, Mel Arnold, and C. Elliott Richards. Baptized on 7 July 1946, the Satos were the first Japanese family to join the Church in Japan after World War II. Brother Sato organized a Sunday School in Nagoya and directed it almost singlehandedly until missionaries were sent there two years later. Brother Sato proved to be a great blessing to Japanese members of the Church—he retranslated the Book of Mormon, translated the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price,7 and in the 1960s he translated the temple ceremony as well.

At the end of 1948, mission records showed one branch, four Sunday Schools, and twenty-two postwar converts in Japan. When the Clissolds departed on 31 August 1949, missionaries were serving in at least ten major cities, and nearly a thousand people were attending Sunday meetings, not including servicemen’s groups.

Foundation Builders

Over the next decade, the Church in Japan made considerable progress under the capable leadership of Vinal G. Mauss, Hilton A. Robertson, and Paul C. Andrus. Presidents Mauss and Robertson and their wives had served as missionaries in Japan toward the end of the early mission; President Andrus had been one of the first five missionaries sent to Japan in 1948, and his wife, Francis Parker Andrus, was also a returned missionary from the Japanese Mission.

But the outbreak of war in Korea in mid-1950 greatly changed the complexion of the mission. President Mauss (1949–53), concerned because the military draft meant fewer missionaries, called many (twenty in 1953) local Japanese men and women to serve two-year missions.

Another effect of the war was the mission’s expansion. In 1951, President Mauss was made responsible for LDS servicemen in Korea, Guam, Okinawa, and the Philippines.8 Despite his heavy responsibilities, he directed the work as membership nearly tripled to six hundred, branches and districts multiplied, and twelve Sunday Schools and a branch expanded to twenty-five branches, many of them led by full-time missionaries who served in branch presidencies.9

President David O. McKay gave Hilton A. Robertson (1953–55) broad authority to preside over the Church not only in Japan but also in China and throughout Asia. He instructed him to organize the Church in the Orient and, specifically, to nurture the small group of Chinese Saints in Hong Kong.10

Preparing local Church leaders was a priority for presidents of the Japanese missions. During the tenure of President Paul C. Andrus (1955–62), the number of priesthood holders grew from 41 to 350 (freeing missionaries for more preaching as local members filled branch and district leadership positions) and the baptism rate rose from 0.7 per missionary to 5.8 by 1957.11 By 1962, the number of Japanese Saints reached 6,600, all auxiliaries were in operation, and five new branches thrived in metropolitan Tokyo and Osaka-Kobe.

The 1960s began an era of chapel building. During his second visit to Japan in 1961, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley noted an urgent need for chapels.12 Mission president Dwayne N. Andersen arrived in Japan in 1962 to find five buildings already approved. During the next three years, seven other sites were purchased and nine chapels were being constructed under the Labor Missionary Program.

Native Leadership

President Andersen was a builder of men as well, taking time to instruct his counselors and others in Church organization and doctrine. His counselors have since served as mission presidents, and others he worked with have shown similar commitment to the work. In order for one district leader to fulfill his Church duties, he had to travel by train all Saturday night after work, then travel home all Sunday night so he could make it to work on Monday morning. “They were willing to make these sacrifices,” President Andersen recalled.13

An event bringing lasting joy to Japanese Saints and further preparing them for leadership was their first trip as a group to the Hawaii Temple. Until 1965, few Japanese members had been able to travel to a temple to be endowed and sealed.

To help finance the trip, they produced a record called “Japanese Saints Sing,” recorded at a top studio after only a few minutes’ practice with the orchestra. After an opening prayer, the chorus sang beyond their abilities. They acknowledged the Lord’s hand in the effort and were honored when some who heard the record asked if it was the Tabernacle Choir.14

Another fund raiser involved giving homemade pearl jewelry in return for donations. A member who was a pearl merchant obtained four thousand pearls, and members set about making earrings, tie pins, and necklaces.15

After careful planning and painstaking negotiations with the airline, 164 people (137 adults, 27 children) arrived in Hawaii to receive their temple blessings. A bonus was that the Japanese members, many of whom were branch and district leaders, attended meetings conducted by experienced leaders and learned from their example. Yearly temple trips to Hawaii became a joyful tradition until a temple was built in Japan in 1980.16

The presidency of Adney Y. Komatsu (1965–68) of the Northern Far East Mission can be characterized as a preparatory prelude to the Church’s rapid growth in Japan during the 1970s and 1980s. By mid-1968, nearly 12,000 members and more than 200 missionaries in Japan signaled a ripe harvest. When called as an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1975, Elder Komatsu became the first person of Japanese ancestry to serve as a General Authority.17 His wife, Judy, has also served in many capacities, including service as a member of the Relief Society General Board.

The late 1960s were a busy time for the Church in Japan. The implementation of new translation and distribution services and planning for Expo ’70 (the Osaka World’s Fair) were underway; and the mission was divided in 1968 into the Japan and Japan Okinawa missions, the latter led by Edward Y. Okazaki, who joined the Church during the days of the Central Pacific Mission and whose wife, Chieko, serves today in the Relief Society general presidency.

Coming of Age

The first milestone during an era of rapid growth took place at the Osaka World’s Fair in March 1970. The Mormon Pavilion was a two-story exhibit with a distinctive Asian tone that presented the teachings of the Church.18 Topped with a statue of the Angel Moroni, the impressive display was hosted by young missionaries from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, and attracted a lot of attention.

The formation of Japan’s first stake, in Tokyo, was another milestone that month. President Kenji Tanaka and both his counselors were native Japanese. (Yoshihiko Kikuchi, one of his counselors, went on to serve in the First Quorum of the Seventy.) Since then, many Japanese have served in leadership positions in the Church—all in little over two decades.

But one of the greatest spiritual blessings to Japanese Saints was the building of a temple in their midst. Of the many notable events in Japanese Church history since 1975, none can compare with President Spencer W. Kimball’s announcement in August 1975 to 9,800 members in Tokyo that a temple for the Saints in Asia would be built. One observer wrote:

“A few of the older Saints had been listening to the prophet’s address with their eyes closed. When they heard the translation of the prophet’s announcement, they slowly opened their eyes and then, as if suddenly realizing what they had heard was true, folded their arms, bowed their heads, and cried.”19

Five years later, on October 27–29, 1980, President Kimball returned to dedicate the beautiful structure built on the site of the 1948 mission home. The temple dedication was a culmination of efforts by members throughout Japan to prepare spiritually for this grand moment. It was also the launching of a new era of growth during the 1980s and to the present.

In 1980, there were 11 stakes and 9 missions in Japan. But the enthusiasm generated by the dedication and the area conferences following the dedication carried the stakes and missions into a period of rapid growth. By the end of 1982, the number of stakes had doubled to 22, and in 1984 Church leaders organized a stake in Okayama. At the end of 1984, membership stood at 70,988. By that time there were also 15 districts (the present number) and more than 135 branches, indicating the promise of future stakes. In early 1991, 96,000 Japanese members participated in 265 wards and branches that were assigned to 23 stakes, 15 districts, and 10 missions.

Church growth in the 1980s was enhanced by the participation of native Japanese who served in all levels of leadership. Presently, almost one-third of the more than 2,000 missionaries serving there are from Japan. The Tokyo Missionary Training Center, founded in 1979, trains more than 200 missionaries each year.

From 1978 to 1982, Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi guided Church affairs while he served as area executive administrator for Japan and Korea. More recently Japan has been part of the Asia Area, with headquarters in Hong Kong. On 1 October 1991, the First Presidency organized the Asia North Area, which includes Japan and Korea, with headquarters in Tokyo. Elder W. Eugene Hansen serves as area president, Elder Han In Sang as first counselor, and Elder Sam Shimabukuro as second counselor.

The Church is solidly established in Japan. Thousands of Japanese Saints are deeply committed to the truth and principles of the restored gospel.

Speaking to the Japanese Saints in 1975, President Gordon B. Hinckley summarized the ongoing achievement of today’s nearly 100,000-strong Church in Japan:

“No one, seeing what I have seen transpire in this land, could deny the workings of the Almighty. He has laid His hand upon this nation. His spirit has brooded over the people. Their hearts have been touched as they have listened to the testimony of His witnesses. … The achievements of the past are but a prologue to a greater future.”20


  1. Gordon A. Madsen, comp., A Japanese Journal, n.p. 1970, p. 12; quotations from the journals of Heber J. Grant.

  2. Jon Christopher Conkling, “The Dark Ages: The L.D.S. Church and Japan from 1924 to 1948,” Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 14 Dec. 1973, p. 28.

  3. Jon Christopher Conkling, “The Dark Ages: The L.D.S. Church and Japan from 1924 to 1948,” Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 14 Dec. 1973, p. 28.

  4. Edward L. Clissold, interview by Kenneth Barnum and J. Christopher Conkling, 8 Nov. 1973; tape recording in author’s possession.

  5. Mission Financial and Statistical Reports (MFSR), Japanese Mission, 1948, LDS Church Archives (hereafter cited as CA), Salt Lake City, Utah.

  6. Paul C. Andrus Oral History, interviews by R. Lanier Britsch, 1974, typescript, pp. 3–4, Oral History Program, CA.

  7. MFSR, Japanese Mission, 1948, CA.

  8. Harrison T. Price, “A Cup of Tea,” Improvement Era, March 1962, p. 160 ff.

  9. Armand L. Mauss Oral History, interviews by William G. Hartley, 1974, typescript, p. 14 (interview 2), Oral History Program, CA.

  10. Vinal Grant Mauss Oral History, interviews by R. Lanier Britsch, 1975, typescript, Oral History Program, CA.

  11. Hilton A. Robertson, Daily Diary, Japanese Mission 1954–55, p. 2; notes in author’s possession.

  12. Andrus Oral History, pp. 24–25.

  13. Gordon B. Hinckley, Journal, 20 May 1961.

  14. Dwayne N. Andersen Oral History, interviews by R. Lanier Britsch, 1973, typescript, p. 15, Oral History Program, CA.

  15. Terry G. Nelson, “A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1948 to 1980,” BYU master’s thesis, 1986, pp. 158–59.

  16. Ibid, p. 158.

  17. Andersen Oral History, p. 26; see also Ensign, Aug. 1975, p. 42.

  18. See Adney Y. Komatsu Oral History, interviews by R. Lanier Britsch, 1974, typescript, Oral History Program, CA.

  19. Gerald Joseph Peterson, “History of Mormon Exhibits in World Expositions,” BYU master’s thesis, 1974, pp. 144–45; Bernard P. Brockbank, “The Mormon Pavilion at Expo ’70,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 121.

  20. Ensign, Oct. 1975, p. 86.

  21. Church News, 16 Aug. 1975, p. 5.

  • R. Lanier Britsch, director of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU, serves as second counselor in the presidency of the BYU Eleventh Stake.

A Japanese stone lantern. (Photo by Floyd Holdman.)

A ward member participates in a track meet, one of the many church-sponsored activities that foster fellowship among the Saints. (Photo by Richard Romney.)

President Seiichiro Utagawa of the Japan Okayama Mission. (Photo by M. M. Kawasaki.)

A member of the Sapporo Japan Stake drums up excitement at a stake activity. (Photo by Richard Romney.)

Church members in about 1948, including, back row left, Japanese Mission president Edward L. Clissold and his wife, Irene; Fujiya Nara, second from right, and his wife, Motoko, front row left.

Despite many obstacles, the first of a series of trips to the Hawaii Temple was a resounding success and is still a treasured memory for many Japanese Saints.

Tokyo temple missionaries with their grandchild. (Photo by M. M. Kawasaki.)

Common throughout Japan are serene surroundings that invite reverence and reflection. (Photo by M. M. Kawasaki.)

A crowning, long-anticipated event in the history of the Church in Japan was the building of the Tokyo Japan Temple in 1980. (Photo by Floyd Holdman.)