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Christians in Japan come together for Graham Festival

OKINAWA, Japan (BP)–Japanese and Americans on Okinawa are working together to spread the name of Jesus throughout their island.

Traffic was stopped in both directions as Bo Russell, the American pastor of Koza Baptist Church in Okinawa City, Japan, was on his way to his office. “Hey, Pastor Bo!” he heard in broken English from the window of another car in the gridlock.

Russell turned to see a Japanese woman smiling as she waved from her car. He had no name to put with the face, but he recognized her as a co-worker for the Nov. 3-5 Okinawa Franklin Graham Festival. Until recently, interaction between Okinawan and American Christians on the island was highly uncommon.

Tears welled up in Russell’s eyes. “I have been on the island for 12 years, and this is a first,” he said, reflecting on how God has used the Festival preparations to bring the American and Japanese Christians together for what Russell hopes is the most significant event in the history of the island.

Tamotsu Uchimura, pastor of New Life Chapel, said that the Festival provided the opportunity for the Japanese and Americans to work and pray together for the salvation of people on the island of 1.3 million where he estimates the percentage of Christians to be about 3 percent, slightly higher than Japan as a whole. “We really have become one and we really love each other,” Uchimura said.

The relationship between the Japanese and the Americans on Okinawa has been tense since the 1945 American invasion of the island at the end of World War II. Casualties on Okinawa numbered more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and 90 percent of the island’s buildings were destroyed. The island was returned to the Japanese in 1972, but the U.S. has maintained a military presence. Roughly 100,000 American military personnel and their families are stationed there.

Festival Director Chad Hammond said that though the American military presence can be a source of tension, he has seen firsthand how God brought unity through Festival preparations, which joined the two communities across language, cultural and denominational lines, and deep-seated racial tensions. Hammond has seen a spirit of reconciliation displayed most vividly in the general chairman of the Festival, Mamoru Kunyoshi, whose father was one of the World War II casualties.

Kunyoshi hopes the Festival helped break the hold of ancestor worship, a common practice on Okinawa, in which ancestors become like gods to their descendants. Because of the nature of this spiritual struggle, Kunyoshi said, “A clear understanding of the living God is of great importance … an understanding that God is the creator and sustainer of all life.”

Sharing the sentiments of more than 200 pastors throughout Okinawa, Russell, speaking before the Festival, hoped that people during the Festival would do more than just calling out the name of a local pastor on a crowded street — they would call on “the name of Jesus for salvation,” he said. “Oh, for a thousand tongues to do just that!”
This article was taken from Decision magazine, November 2006; ©2006 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; used by permission, all rights reserved.

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  • Amanda Knoke, BGEA