EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Dec. 4-11 with the theme of “His heart, His hands, His voice — I am Southern Baptist missions” from Acts 1:8. Each year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support Southern Baptists’ 5,000 international missionaries’ initiatives in sharing the Gospel. This year’s offering goal is $175 million. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org/offering.
TOKYO (BP) — Kiyoshi Sugioka entered the busy Tokyo train station with a single purpose in mind — to end his life. Dressed in a business suit and dress shirt, the 53-year-old Sugioka looked like any of the hundreds of Japanese businessmen crowding the station.
He once was part of their world — the world of international business and finance. The pace of his life moved briskly with the same efficiency for which Japanese businesses are renowned. He left for work at 7 a.m. and returned home around 11 p.m., 30 minutes after the New York Stock Exchange opened. Sugioka spent most late nights tracking his investments. He rarely slept. Like most Japanese businessmen, he seldom saw his wife and two daughters.
But on that day in July 2009, Sugioka’s life was dramatically different from those surrounding him at the station. He had hit rock bottom. In one year, Sugioka lost two jobs, his family, his home, his honor and even his identity.
Millions of dollars are made and lost every day in the world of international finance. In 2008, Sugioka was a major player. As a manager in a prestigious Japanese investment firm, his team had made billions for his company. Along the way, Sugioka amassed a small personal fortune. Then, one day in July 2008, the bubble burst. One of Sugioka’s employees made a risky investment resulting in a huge loss.
“I had two options,” Sugioka recounts. “I could hand over my own personal wealth to the company or I could face a court hearing and possible prison time.”
Sugioka opted to pay the company back and instantly fell from the heights of financial prestige to the pits of homelessness. With that single decision, he became a Japanese government statistic, joining an estimated 4,000 people sleeping on the streets of Tokyo. He took up residence in Yoyogi Park in downtown Tokyo.
“I was homeless for two months,” Sugioka says, “and I saw a completely different world.”
In those two months, Sugioka met a man named Josh Park, an IMB (International Mission Board) missionary with ties to California now serving Tokyo’s homeless population, which consists mostly of men. The two met when Park offered Sugioka a cup of coffee in Yoyogi Park.
“It was the winter of 2008,” Sugioka says. “I had found another job with an information technology company outside of Tokyo.”
Park offered Sugioka his cell phone number, but Sugioka said he didn’t need it. His life was coming back together. Still, Park wrote his number on a small slip of paper and Sugioka stuck it in his wallet without much thought.
However, Sugioka’s job with the IT company was short-lived.
“In an economic downturn, people are the first to go,” Sugioka says. “Companies move to protect profits.”
Sugioka lost the job in March 2009 and returned to Tokyo a desperate man. That desperation was fueled in part by the stigma associated with unemployment and homelessness in Japanese society.
“When I lost my job, I not only lost my home and my family, I lost all of my relationships,” Sugioka says. “I was cut off from my [business] contacts.”
So Sugioka decided to end his life.
“It wasn’t that I wanted to die,” he says. “It was that I didn’t want to live anymore. I wanted to erase my existence.”
Each day in Japan, many Japanese face a decision similar to Sugioka’s. On average, seven people a day end their lives, according to the Japanese government. The most common methods of suicide include hanging, leaping from buildings and jumping in front of a train.
Sugioka went to the train station.
He stood at the edge of the platform, peering at the tracks below. He looked left and then right for approaching trains. He fidgeted. He adjusted his glasses. He put his hands in his pockets and let out a deep breath. He stepped away from the tracks.
Then, for whatever reason, Sugioka remembered the man he met a year before in Yoyogi Park. He fished the number from his wallet, found a pay phone and called Park.
Sugioka didn’t tell Park that he was contemplating suicide. He only asked if Park could meet him somewhere.
“When I saw him, he was in really bad shape,” Park recalls. “He look tired, weary and worn out.
“I just listened to him talk. I remembered that he wasn’t interested in hearing the Gospel. Then he said, ‘Tell me about God.'”
When Park shared the plan of salvation, Sugioka prayed to receive Christ. After a few weeks of discipleship, Sugioka was baptized in Tokyo’s Tama River in August 2009.
“He introduced me to God and Christ,” Sugioka says of Park. “It was a world I didn’t know. I felt like I was born again.”
Park didn’t learn until later that Sugioka was on the brink of suicide when he called. Through the experience, he realized anew that “we are in a serious business. [We are] dealing with people between life and death.”
Today, Sugioka lives in government-subsidized housing. He participates in one of the small groups started by a Baptist team ministering to the homeless in Tokyo. They meet throughout the week in parks and restaurants. Typically, approximately 100 homeless people gather each Saturday for worship in Yoyogi Park.
From this experience, Sugioka learned relationships were more important than power, prestige and wealth. He learned the church, rather than the workplace, helped meet his need for community.
Sugioka now has gained employment as an accountant with a real estate agency in nearby Yokohama that specializes in custom home construction orders. He found this job through a friend he met at Tokyo Baptist Church. The company is going to help him move from government-subsidized housing into an inexpensive apartment closer to Yokohama.
In his new position, Sugioka will have a small staff. He wants to be a good supervisor and to look for opportunities to share Christ.
“Because others have helped us, we need to make [good] choices.” Sugioka says.
He also doesn’t want to fail. He is quick to point out that it took only one day to fall from the top to the bottom. However, it also took only one prayer to receive God’s grace. Today, Sugioka’s desires are different than they once were. Now, he focuses on finding opportunities to share Christ’s love with those around him — in his personal life and with business relationships.
“The people of Japan are very affluent, but their hearts are in poverty,” Sugioka says. “The people of Japan need restructuring of their hearts.”
Tess Rivers is an IMB writer living in Southeast Asia.