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567 prisoners stayed to attend the Bible study

When we arrived at the lecture hall, around 900 were gathered. The chaplain introduced us at once, and I began to preach. As I spoke about “Jesus, the friend of sinners,” many seemed moved and I could see tears in the eyes of some.

Mr. Kimura spoke next. Halfway through, one of the convicts leapt up from his seat with a loud cry and rushed towards the front. Ignoring the guards’ attempts to stop him, he collapsed in tears in front of the pulpit. Another two leapt up; one threw himself before the pulpit, another at the feet of one of the prison chiefs, and both began to weep. At first we thought they’d gone crazy, but it was because they were so deeply moved. Many other prisoners also began to well up, and there were tears on the cheeks of the guards. Mr. Kimura and I laid hands on the two prisoners in front of the pulpit, and we prayed and comforted them.

At the close of the chapel meeting, we announced the start of a Bible study and 567 stayed to attend. At the end of the study, when Mr. Kimura exhorted them, “If you have decided to believe in the Lord, then raise your hand,” all except 17 or 18 raised their hands. Among those who didn’t were some who had already confessed faith and didn’t feel the need to raise their hands. And so, almost all committed themselves to believing in the Lord. In terms of numbers, is this revival not even greater than the last?”1

So recorded Sakamoto Naohiro (坂本直寛) in 1907 about the fifth mission to Tokachi (十勝) prison in Hokkaido. Naohiro is a key figure in the history of Christianity in Hokkaido. The nephew of Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬),2 he was in turn journalist; politician; prisoner; pioneer; agriculturalist; itinerant evangelist; campaigner for humanitarian aid, women’s rights, and the abolition of prostitution; editor of a Christian newspaper; and pastor. He was also the main preacher in the Tokachi prison revival.

It was a dangerous and sacrificial work. Since roads and railways stopped a long way from the prison, Naohiro, who had learned compassion for convicts through meditating on the love of Christ during his own imprisonment,3 travelled great distances across rough terrain to get there, even horse-drawn sledge through blizzards in the winter.4 Naohiro and his co-workers (including both Japanese pastors and American missionaries) were determined that the gospel should reach these prisoners at all costs.

With a change of prison governor, the open door (for the gospel, not the prisoners!) would close soon after the incident with which this article begins, but who can calculate what eternal fruit was borne amongst the unknown and unremembered prisoners of Tokachi?

Reading accounts of the revival, the driving forces behind the prison missions are clear. The love of God is a huge theme in Naohiro’s life and motivated him to seek the good, especially the eternal good, of all people. He was also a man of prayer; the revival in the fourth prison mission was preceded by special prayer meetings for revival. Nagano Masao (長野政雄),5 on whom the hero of Miura Ayako’s novel Shiokari Pass is closely based, was also an attendee at these meetings. Naohiro recorded one of the meetings in his autobiography:

When  I arrived in the church, I was initially disappointed by the small numbers, but the prayer had a great energy to it. All of a sudden, the Holy Spirit descended on us. That night, Mr. Yoshino and Mr. Usui had come from the Tokachi prison. Mr. Yoshino shared about the current situation there, I added things I had recently felt and Mr. Usui offered a fervent prayer. After I finished the devotional and sat down, I felt a burden in my heart: at the same time, I experienced an indescribable, unstoppable feeling rising up within me and I unexpectedly raised my voice and started to cry. This emotion passed to the others and soon we were all choking back tears. One person confessed their sins and repented, another offered a prayer of thanks, still another vowed to work for the Lord. The way the Spirit struck us was just like being electrified.6

Naohiro also believed firmly in the power of the proclaimed gospel: he devoted himself to preaching the Bible’s message clearly, directly and unashamedly. Another factor was his care for the individual: once, while visiting prisoners in solitary confinement, he met a murderer. The man was known for his untameable anger and no-one had ever seen him smile. He was secured by ball and chain. When Naohiro entered his cell, the man stared at him with murder in his eyes. But Naohiro’s first question took him by surprise, “Is there anything you enjoy doing in your solitary cell?”

“There’s nothing to enjoy. Just pain and suffering, and I can hardly sleep.”

“You’ve said you are suffering, and I’m sure you are. But there is someone here who you don’t yet know. If you knew him, even this solitary cell you are suffering in would seem like a palace.”

Naohiro proceeded to explain the gospel of Jesus Christ. When he left, some of the tension seemed to have left the man’s face and he asked the guard if he could borrow a Bible.

On Naohiro’s next visit, he found the man in his cell reading the Bible.

“When you read the Bible, has anything struck you?”

“I’ve been short-tempered my whole life; I’ve even murdered a man, but the Bible has taught me patience.”

Naohiro then simply explained the gospel once more.7

Revival is always a sovereign work of God, but he does seem to especially delight to bring revival in the context of fervent prayer, bold preaching, confession of sin, and love for the lost. Naohiro was no perfect saint; he was easily discouraged and his family life was far from exemplary. But he loved the Lord, he believed in the power of the gospel and the love of God for all men, and the Lord richly used him.

In the context of today’s Japan where gospel work is slow and hard, I am encouraged to remember that the God of today is the same God who 100 years ago brought life and hope to so many in the Tokachi prison. I am also reminded that the gospel remains “the power of God . . . to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16 NIV) and to think of all those around me who have never yet heard about Jesus, the friend of sinners. I am challenged about my half-hearted prayer life.

May the love of Christ also compel us to proclaim the gospel to all people, and may many experience his mercy, grace, and salvation. In closing, here is Naohiro reflecting on the love of God:

Ah, how deep is the love of God! He was patient with an arrogant atheist sinner like me, forgave all my sins and led me to the path of salvation, the path of truth. On top of that, he granted his warm grace to my stubborn old mother and the rest of my family, bringing them to participate in the gospel of the Lord. I cannot express my thanks, and my joy.8

1. Quoted in 土居晴夫 Doi Haruo, 龍馬の甥坂本直寛の生涯 [Life of Naohiro Sakamoto, Ryōma’s Nephew], (Kōchi-shi: Livre Co., Ltd., 2007), 243.

2. One of the key architects of the Meiji Restoration.

3. 守部喜雅 Moribe Yoshimasa, 龍馬の夢 [Ryōma’s Dream], (Tokyo: World of Life Press Ministries Forest Books, 2013), 98. A key text for Naohiro was Hebrews 2:17-18.

4. See for example the account in 土居晴夫 Haruo Doi, 234-5.

5. In the novel, he is called Nagano Nobuo [永野信夫].

6. 坂本直寛 Sakamoto Naohiro, 自伝 [Autobiography],  土居晴夫編 edited by Doi Haruo, (Tokyo: Sanyō Shuppansha, 1988), quoted in 守部 Moribe, 136-7.]

7. Recorded in 守部 [Moribe], 133-4.

8. 坂本直寛 Sakamoto Naohiro, 自伝 [Autobiography],  土居晴夫編 edited by Doi Haruo, (Tokyo: Sanyō Shuppansha, 1988), quoted in 守部 Moribe, 89.

Further bibliography

吉田曠二 Hiroji Yoshida, 龍馬復活自由民権家 坂本直寛の生涯) [Ryōma’s Revival: Life of Naohiro Sakamoto, Activist of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement], (Tokyo: The Asahi Shimbun, 1985)

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwarby/3256155178

John Newton Webb and his wife Sian came to Japan with OMF from the UK in 2010 and lead a church plant in Sapporo. John loves Japanese Christian history and uses it regularly in ministry.

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