Missionaries to Japan

by Irene Gurganus

Filled with exhilaration, George and I stood in awe of God and his plan for us to be missionaries in Japan.  Was it really happening?  As promised in Jeremiah 29:11,

"For I know the plans I have for you ... 
plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
 plans to give you hope and a future."

God had an incredible future in store for us!  

The Gurganus family - bound for Japan

George and I decided to visit friends and relatives while driving cross-country to San Francisco, and then cross the Pacific Ocean by ship.  To keep track of our many adventures en route, I jotted down notes in a journal.  Lynette and Janetkay contributed to it by drawing very unusual pictures of ships and other interesting sights we encountered along the way.  We also took 8-mm movies, now dusty and worn, but full of treasured memories.

Cross-country Road Trip

Thrilled to begin our new adventure, we loaded up our car, hopped in, and set forth for Chicago. We enjoyed greeting our friends at the church there and visiting with my parents.  As we returned to the highway, it rained furiously, and we crept along in heavy traffic.  In St. Louis, we dropped in on my uncle Hugh, Jr. for a few hours, and then drove on to the Cedar Lodge cabins on Route 67 to rest for the night.  Back then, a night's lodging was only $5, the day's meals ran from $1- $3, and gas was about $4 per day.  Thus, our daily cross-country expenses totaled only ~$15.

In the morning, we drove on to Searcy, Arkansas, another city drenched with rain.  After seeing Wayne and Eddie, Joan Hayes, the Schrades, Dr. Brown, and other dear friends, we purchased books for educating Janetkay while in Japan.  As we were leaving Searcy, we were startled when suddenly George Pope backed our car into a large hole produced by the constant downpour.  God, however, always provides!  Using a truck, our friends pulled us up out of the sinkhole, and we continued on our way. 

Braving flooded roads, we drove through Little Rock and on to Mt. Pleasant, Texas.  The next day, as it was Sunday, we attended a church service hoping to find Helen Reese, who had been in our wedding in Chicago.  At that church, although we were missionaries on our way to Japan, we received surprisingly little attention.  The lack of support was discouraging, and so was the continual rain.  Yet, I was reminded that this journey to Japan was for God's glory, not mine. As it states in Galatians 1:10,

"Am I now trying to win the 
approval of men, or of God?  
Or am I trying to please men?  
If I were still trying to please men, 
I would not be a servant of Christ."

 After passing through Abilene, we spent time enjoying Godís incredible creation.  We toured the Carlsbad Caverns, relaxed in Juarez, Mexico, and checked out the Coolidge Dam in Arizona.  In Globe, the mud adobes and Native Indian women carrying their children on their backs in papooses fascinated us.  We also got a kick out of seeing real cowboys loading cattle onto trains. The magnificent mountains in Superior amazed us, and in scorching hot Phoenix, we enjoyed seeing an abundance of oranges, dates, and palm trees. 

To avoid the snow in the Grand Canyon,  we went south through a desert dotted with sand dunes.  We stopped in El Centro to attend church and were delighted to discover that the preacher was a former schoolmate of George Pope.  As we continued westward, we drove from 45 feet below sea level to 5000 feet above in just 12 miles.  After the car overheated multiple times during that climb, it was such a relief to arrive at the top!

The girls were delighted to ride a merry-go-round and even a fire engine at a carnival in San Diego, and then on October 31, my birthday, we drove to Los Angeles through beautiful wooded mountains and along the Pacific Ocean.  I thoroughly enjoyed the girls singing "Happy Birthday" to me as we drove along. 

We stopped at Pepperdine College, where we saw old friends and read our mail that had been forwarded there.  We had a great time shopping for appliances at Sears, although the prices were higher than back East.  Our purchases, including a stove, heater, refrigerator, and kitchen set, cost less than $500.  In addition, we bought a bedroom set, a studio couch, and plumbing fixtures from my former classmate, Walter King.

Discovering that our ship was sailing from San Francisco in just a few days, we scurried to tie up loose ends.  After speaking to the church at their midweek service, we did our final packing.  The following day we piled back in our car and drove northward in the California heat.  By seven o'clock that evening we arrived at a cabin about 80 miles from San Francisco.

Early the next morning we drove into San Francisco to purchase ship tickets for passage to Japan.  Including transporting our car and furniture, the tickets ran only ~$700.  While in the city, we shopped for entertaining toys for the girls and bought some Dramamine for George Pope, as he was hoping to avoid getting seasick.  Then we had our well-traveled car serviced, as all the chrome needed to be polished before we boarded the ship.

Crossing the Pacific Ocean

George and I were so thrilled when we first saw the Flying Dragon, the huge cargo ship that was to take us across the Pacific Ocean.  Our trip to Japan was becoming increasingly real!   As massive as the ship was, the Flying Dragon had only four cabins, two of which were assigned to our family.  The four other passengers included Joe and Norma Parker who were denominational missionaries, a Frenchman named Andre, and Art. 

George and I scurried to get our daughters, along with our car and supplies, safely on board the ship.  At last we could relax, as the last few days had been quite hectic.  Before the ship left the harbor that Saturday, November 5, we had time to enjoy dinner, write letters, and call a few friends.

On Sunday, November 6, the sea's roughness both scared and excited me.  After conducting a church service with Joe and Norma in the dining hall, a pattern we repeated throughout our sea voyage, we sat outside on the deck to view the expansive ocean.  The sea air was chilly but pleasant.  After dinner, Andre taught us French.  Later that evening, back in our cabin, George and I took communion and gave thanks to God for such an incredible life.

All night long the whistles blew due to the thick fog.   After breakfast, when the fog finally lifted, we docked in Seattle.  Although it was chilly and damp, after two days at sea we were happy to walk on the solid ground and do some shopping.  In the evening, we enjoyed playing 42.  The next morning, Pope's aching tooth prompted him to see a dentist in the city.  I stayed on the ship and wrote an article for our Chicago church newsletter, and then studied French again with Andre.  That night, with George safely back on board, we again set sail.

As we moved through the Strait of Juan, the ship gently swayed under a brightly shining sun.  I felt so at peace.  All morning we watched the lovely coastlines of Vancouver

Island and Washington State.  However, when we reached the open sea, the ship began to roll violently.  We rushed about putting all of our belongings in our cabinets and then tied up the drawers securely.  The severe swaying forced us to stay in bed all day, as walking was nearly impossible.  Just about everyone, and especially Lynette, was quite queasy that night.  After only the first 372 miles, the sea's roughness already exhausted us!

As our journey continued, the continual stimulation gave me quite an appetite.  The food was delicious, that is, except for the boiled salted salmon bellies.  Unfortunately George Pope was very seasick throughout most of the trip.  Sitting on the deck helped George feel less nauseous, so Lynette, Janetkay and I would often gather around George on deck chairs as we talked, read, or enjoyed the view together.  A brilliant rainbow over the deep blue sea was one of the most stunning sights God blessed us with.

The Captain of the Flying Dragon would tell us exciting tales of the sea in his Italian accent.  He was also very talented musically.  One day, he invited us to his cabin and played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto #4 beautifully.  We developed quite a fun friendship with him, with Lynette often scolding him for the horrid weather.

Joe Parker would sit and tell numerous Bible stories to the girls.  Janetkay especially loved hearing the complete story of Moses.  Meanwhile, Joe's wife, Norma, worked hard to finish crocheting three pairs of mittens and I spent many hours sewing.  I also attempted washing everyone's hair, where just keeping steady was quite a feat. In the evenings, we often played such games as Snap, Old Maid, Big Business, Rhythm and Chinese Rook.

As we sailed through the passage into the Bering Sea, we were delighted to see huge mountains covered in snow.  When we arrived at Adak, an army base in Sweeper's Cove of the Aleutian Islands, we enjoyed the calm water and the snow-peaked mountains covered with an interesting brown moss. The base was off-limits to civilians, but we could see how desolate it was: just a scattering of brown buildings without any trees in sight.

Upon crossing the International Date Line, we instantly skipped from Wednesday, November 16 to Friday, the 18th.   It felt so strange to lose an entire day!  Soon after that, we were awoken one morning by a violent storm.  As the sea roughly tossed our ship to and fro, items fell and rolled all over our cabin.  As we bucked the gale, gigantic waves crashed over the railing, spraying our windows.  Eating was a challenge as our dishes and chairs would slide around.  That Sunday it was comical watching George Pope preach a sermon while he and his Bible slid back and forth.  We were so relieved when the storm finally blew over!

After nearly three weeks at sea, the Flying Dragon neared the coast of Japan.  George, Lynette, Janetkay and I were so excited the night before we docked that we could hardly sleep.  The next morning, we all gathered on the deck in exhilaration as we sailed toward the beautiful Yokohama coastline.  That day was Thursday, November 24, Thanksgiving Day!  Indeed, that day, we were truly thankful to God for carrying us safely across the Pacific Ocean and planning such an exciting new adventure for us!

Getting Settled in Tokyo

We slept really well in the harbor that night.  In fact, it was the best sleep in weeks!  In the morning, while we were still eating breakfast, a respected elderly missionary and his wife came on the Flying Dragon to greet us.  We were excited to work together with these veterans on the mission field.  Before disembarking, a medical technician came on board to give us all typhoid shots.  A terrified Janetkay hid on the ship, but she was found and injected in short order.

We glided through Customs with the help of the missionary's excellent Japanese.  Then, after supplying our car with gas and oil, the missionary and his wife drove behind us to ensure our safe arrival in Tokyo.  We were very grateful for such kind and thoughtful assistance. 

As we traveled, everything was new and exciting.  We were glad to be off the ship and looked forward to making this new country our home.  As we drove through the streets, we eagerly gazed through the car windows.  The sights of the war-torn city struggling to rebuild itself impacted us, and our hearts went out to the people around us.  Bombing had destroyed so many of the homes, and food and other necessary supplies were being rationed.  Even the royal family was nearly destitute from our troops occupying their land.  Many lived in poverty and near starvation.  Gasoline was difficult to purchase.  We were so grateful that God would choose us to help heal many hurting souls in this city.

We moved into a western style home, called a topping house, located in Sakagose on the Ko train line.  Our new home came furnished with a few chairs, a table, a stove, a refrigerator, and a couple of beds.  The only heat in the house was a single fireplace.  To combat the freezing cold, we burned our furniture crates in the fireplace. I wore my mother's old fur coat from November to April while outside, and at night, I draped the fur coat over our bed as a very needed extra blanket.

We were amazed that most of the Japanese homes did not have any form of central heating.  Typically, for warmth, the Japanese lit charcoal inside a hibachi, a little round pot lacquered on the outside.  Often, they would place a quilt-covered table over the hibachi, which would be lodged in a hole in the floor. With this setup, you could warm at least your hands and feet while sitting in the hole under the quilt, but the rest of you stayed quite cold.

We befriended Kagawa-san, an amazing individual who lived in the neighborhood and had been a previous resident of our topping house.  Although quite famous in Japan from writing a number of religious books, Kagawa-san's personal life most inspired us.  He would provide his own coat to anyone he met cold and barefoot on the snow-covered road.  When we presented Kagawa-san with another coat as a replacement, he gave that one away as well.  His life was a testimony that it is "more blessed to give than to receive" as written in Acts 20:3.  From him, we learned that the percentage of those calling themselves "Christian" in Japan, whether Catholic or Protestant, was only one half of one percent.  It was clear that God had plenty of work in store for us.  George thoroughly enjoyed walking and talking with Kagawa-san in the mornings, and we were sad when later we lost contact with him.

To help us during our initial stay, we hired a Japanese woman to shop and cook for us each day.  She attempted western-style cooking, including pork chops and bacon.  As the pigs in Japan were fed fish because it was so plentiful, the pork also tasted like fish.  In fact, anything fried in bacon grease tasted like fish.  Thus, we learned to love that wonderful fishy taste!  Due to rationing, rice was scarce, but we could get potatoes and an array of other vegetables and fruit.  Even though the food seemed strange to us, with so many having far less, we were grateful to have as much as we did.

When we yearned for a juicy American hamburger, we went to a restaurant at Church World Service, where missionaries could buy products from America and Australia.  In addition, those at remote locations, such as Iburaki-Ken, 100 miles north of Tokyo, could have their groceries delivered.  Of food items not available through Church World Service, we especially missed Coke and ice cream.

Christmas was soon upon us.  As a present for Lynette and Janetkay, George and I set up a small slide in our living room.  We put a tree near the fireplace and decorated it with strung popcorn garlands, as ornaments were not yet available in Japan.  We bought a chicken for our Christmas dinner from the Church World Service.  That first Christmas dinner, topping off our first month in Japan, was a memorable time of fellowship between our family and other missionaries.  We felt so blessed by God!

New Chapel

After the war, many Japanese were forced to sell their land at very reasonable prices.  This enabled the elderly missionary to purchase property from a baron to be used for worship services, the formation of a Tokyo Bible Institute for teaching English using the Bible, and his family residence.  This estate, located near a hospital and the Ochanimizu station, included a large house and a circular driveway enclosing a lovely island.  It was a wonderful new location for the church to gather together.  In addition, in January, upon invitation, we also moved into the house.

Removing one wall transformed the living room into a chapel seating 75 people.  The sunshine beaming through the windows greatly brightened and warmed the room.  A long hallway connected the chapel and our new apartment, which included three or four bedrooms, a spacious living room, a kitchen area, and a porch.  I loved walking down the steps down from our porch to a Japanese garden, complete with a fishpond converted into a baptistry. 

From the garden, one could enter four Japanese-style rooms, arranged in a row and separated by removable paper doors.  Thus, when desired, an additional large meeting hall could be created.  Near the rooms stood a 'kura', a large cement storage building with a six-inch-thick iron door, used by the baron to keep valuables safe.  We used the 'kura' to store clothing sent to us by American churches for the poor in Japan.  One day, while exiting, I slammed the heavy iron door on my arm.  Due to that painful blunder, my arm hung in a sling for quite some time. 

Some of the rooms upstairs were converted into classrooms for the Tokyo Bible Institute.  Eager to learn English, many Japanese students enrolled in the program.  Our hearts went out to Fujiko-san, a 20-year-old daughter of a prominent family, who was financially unable to attend the school, but was willing to work to learn English.  In exchange for help with household chores, we provided Fujiko-san with room and board and paid her $30 a month.  She became part of our family.  Fujiko-san learned English quickly from Lynette, who read her many stories in English.  In fact, Lynette was so busy helping Fujiko-san learn English, that Lynette was not learning much Japanese.  Meanwhile, Janetkay, only five years old, heartily played with the local Japanese children and picked up Japanese very quickly.  

At this time, there was a great influx of young missionary couples from Harding College.  Though most moved to Ibaraki-ken, Collis and Delores Campbell went to Yokohama to support E. A. Rhodes, who had faithfully worked as a missionary in Japan since before the war.  The Yokohama ministry, which met at a building on a bluff, had great attendances and numerous baptisms.  After the Rhodes returned to America for age and health reasons, the Campbells realized that the kindergarten started in their building was becoming more popular than the church.  Desiring a new start, the Campbells moved in with us and we became the best of friends.

The elderly missionary in whose home we stayed introduced us to many prominent Japanese in Tokyo.  We were impressed by his many contacts.  We enjoyed touring the Emperor's Palace, and even entered rooms tourists were not allowed to visit.  Senators and others close to the Emperor would visit us at our home in Ochanomizu.   Once, the missionary organized a dinner for the Emperor's brothers and sisters, who were finding life difficult without titles, property or wealth.

We especially enjoyed meeting Ukeo Osaki, who had been mayor of Tokyo when Japan sent cherry trees to Washington, D.C.  Unfortunately, when the cherry trees arrived in America, Customs confiscated and disposed of them as diseased.  This, of course, made the politicians very uneasy.  Later, when Osaki-san visited President Roosevelt, the president apologized for the cherry tree event.  Osaki-san replied with a joke, which was not typical for a Japanese.  He said, "I understand American presidents have always had trouble with cherry trees."  Of course, he was referring to George Washington's chopping down of one.  George loved telling this story.

George learned to greatly respect Osaki-san.  On occasion, when Osaki-san gave lectures in different prefectures of Japan, George would travel with him.  George enjoyed staying in some unusual inns and seeing the beautiful countryside.  During one lecture, while everyone sat in a circle around Osaki-san, he said, "See how tall Gurganus-san is?  If the Japanese ate a much meat as the Americans, we also would be tall."  At the time, we thought that he was only joking. However, since then, the Japanese have been eating more red meat, and have indeed become taller!

A Rude Awakening

George and I felt so honored and thankful to God to be able to work with the respected elderly missionary couple that had invited us to Tokyo.  They had taken such great care of us, even opening up their home.  However, in the upcoming months, living with them, we were greatly distressed by uncovered secrets in their lives.

The initial sense that something was amiss came from noticing expensive items in their house, including a grand piano and numerous sterling silver pieces.  But, in August, we learned some facts that shook our faith.  One day, a Japanese senator, who often came to visit, arrived while the elderly missionary couple was out.  The senator said that he was traveling to the United States and needed about $300 in exchange for yen.  George replied that it was illegal for any Japanese citizen to take that much cash to America.  The senator, receiving nothing from George, was quite taken aback and reported the incident to the missionary.

We were shocked to discover that this respected missionary was running a black market exchange.   For providing large amounts of U.S. cash, he would receive more yen per dollar than legally available.  This explained the amazing number of prominent people that would visit our home.  In addition, the missionary would illegally buy American products for the Japanese.  When we confronted him on these activities, he denied any wrongdoing.  This stunned us.  We had never come across such a sinful situation involving a respected leader in the church.  George would return from a conversation with the missionary and say, "I must be losing my mind.  He talks so spiritually and yet I know that what he's doing is wrong.  I'm beginning to think there's something wrong with me.  I'm just torn apart all the time."  We got down on our knees and prayed to God for wisdom and strength.

We asked the church supporting us to come to Tokyo and check into this concerning matter.  Woodrow Whitten, who knew both of us very well, came to talk with the Japanese to get their side of the story.  The Japanese, reluctant to be open with an outsider, stuck together with a story urged on them by the elderly missionary.  They indicated that there was a personality clash between him and us, and that we wanted to separate from him, as other missionaries had, because some of the churches supporting him were premillenialists.  George and I could not believe what we were hearing!

When we consulted the missionaries in Ibaraki-ken, we discovered that they had known of the elderly missionary's illegal black market activities, but were afraid to tell us for fear we would not believe them.  In addition, they were concerned that we would think that they were accusing him because of their stand on premillenialism.  In fact, they had left Tokyo for Ibaraki-ken because of what he was doing, feeling that they lacked the power to change the situation.

One of the military members of the church who was in Army Intelligence investigated the matter for us.  He found sufficient evidence of illegal activity that the missionary could have been imprisoned, but because of his great involvement with such influential Japanese, the military would not prosecute.

Woodrow Whitten, our mediator, found it difficult to discern the truth.  The elderly missionary was very convincing in his expression of love for George and confusion about George's charges, and was supported by the Japanese.  George, meanwhile, was emphatic that the elderly missionary was involved in sinful activities.  In the end, Brother Whitten felt that a problem existed between the two men, and decided that both men should leave the church property.  George was given an option of starting a new church in Ibaraki-Ken or returning to America.

This began a time of deep soul searching for George and me.  We believed with all our hearts that we made a Kingdom decision when we gave up our work in New York to go to Japan.  It was so painful to experience the present result of our sacrifice.  So many in the church now believed that we had a personality conflict with this established, respected missionary.  How could we have any spiritual impact on this people?  We questioned, "Why, Lord, did you send us to Japan?  Why did you lead and guide us here?  Now, with this division in the church, are we to return to America?" 

For the first time in our Christian lives, we questioned our convictions.  How much of what we believed and taught was from God, and how much was from the traditions we grew up with?  Both George and I decided to reexamine our convictions.  We studied through the Scriptures asking, "Why do we believe this?"   "Why were we taught this?", and "Why have these events unfolded this way?"  As we searched the Scriptures, our convictions were deepened.  We resolved that we would follow Jesus regardless of the obstacles and costs.  In addition, we believed that it was no accident that we were in Tokyo, that God had called us to save the Japanese, and so we decided to stay in the city, believing that it was God's will.

Once we decided to stay in Tokyo, we had another dilemma.  By beginning a new congregation in Tokyo, would it be causing division in the church?  The last thing that we wanted to do was imitate the sin of the Corinthian church as described in I Corinthians 1:12, where

"One ... says, 'I follow Paul'; 
another, 'I follow Apollos'; 
another, 'I    follow Cephas'; 
still another, 'I follow Christ.'"

After much prayer, we concluded that starting a new church would not be divisive, but stepping out to do what Jesus wanted us to do.  Jesus commands his church to be pure, honest, and mission-minded.  The lost in Tokyo could not find Christ in a congregation tolerating greed and deceit.  In the end, we were grateful to God that our faith had been strengthened, our convictions deepened, and a new and exciting course set for us.  As always,

" all things God works for the good 
of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."  Roman 8:28

A New Beginning  

Interior of the new building

George and I were grateful for the encouragement and support of the military disciples in our endeavor to start a new church.  In addition, about ten of the Japanese disciples, including Judge Inomata, Dr. Takada, Yokyo Mori, and the Shoto brothers, wanted to go with us.

George with Judge Inomata

While looking for property to build on, we met in the Nukijo building in downtown Tokyo.  Inamota-san helped us locate the land where the Tokyo Church of Christ still meets.  After targeting the property, he timed the walking distance from the nearest train station.  I still remember driving alongside him while he walked so dignified and precise.  His walk took only seven minutes.   All around, nearly everything had been bombed out, leaving only a few houses in sight.  We paid just $1500 for the land.  An architect designed a wooden church building, and directly behind, a house for us to live in.

During construction of the new building, the Japanese workers conducted a ceremony when the walls went up, drinking sake, a rice wine, to appease the gods so the work could continue without any evil befalling the workers or the building.  We also had a ceremony; however, we toasted the new building with Cokes and prayed in gratefulness to God! 

Once, during the construction of the building, the Japanese workers came across a large hole, possibly an old well.  We saw them put a long bamboo pole down into the hole.  When we asked about this procedure, they explained that they wanted the spirits down below to get air so as to be able to breathe and, thus, not get angry with them!

In March, 1951, we held our inaugural service in our wooden auditorium used until 1994, 43 years later.  Before this first service, the disciples visited the homes in the neighborhood, inviting all to join us for this special event, including Sunday school at 9:00 a.m.  That first Sunday morning, children starting arriving at 8:30, and by 9:00, the auditorium was filled with 200 Japanese children.  I still treasure the photograph of all of them lined up against the bamboo fence.  Many of those children, now grown up and married with children of their own, still live in the area.

Children gather for the inaugural service

The military disciples greatly encouraged George and I by organizing a special contribution to build four classrooms on the side of the building, as well as a library, two offices, a kitchen, a bedroom downstairs, and four dormitory rooms upstairs.  In addition, about a year later, they built a print shop, enabling us to translate McGarvey's commentary on the book of Acts into Japanese, as well as several other books and small pamphlets. 

The dormitory rooms allowed us to house eight young disciples converted in churches in the countryside, mostly in Ibaraki-ken, so that they could attend school in Tokyo.  These young men diligently helped George and I with the church programs and also maintained the property in return for their rent.

Eager to be about the mission of seeking and saving the lost, the disciples met nearly every night.  We praised God for how he had enabled us to start a church in Tokyo, and for the zeal and faithfulness of those early disciples.   

Chapter 4


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Copyright (c) 2000 Tokyo Church of Christ. All rights reserved.
Revised: January 18, 2002 .