Shortly after World War II, the gospel spread like wildfire throughout Japan. When brethren reached the north coast of the main island of Honshu, they saw across the strait another island: Hokkaido, the cold frontier of Japan. A radio station first sent the Good News across the water, and soon brethren began weekly ferry rides to the south coast of Hokkaido, preaching in a rented hotel room in a city called Hakodate. God worked through such efforts, and an assembly was established. Foreigners and Japanese labored together to bring the gospel farther north, establishing assemblies throughout the island, including Sapporo and its port city of Otaru.
Much like the history recorded in the New Testament, false doctrine infiltrated these young assemblies. Faithful brethren were rejected, including the very men who first carried the gospel to these regions. Young believers were stumbled, and many testimonies were damaged.
In the late 1980s, a young man from Yokohama began his university studies in Otaru. He sought fellowship with the believers, and faithfully witnessed to other students, seeing some of them saved. As he matured, he was deeply disturbed by the condition of the assembly. When fellowship with the Otaru assembly became more difficult, he and another student began commuting three hours by car to Takikawa for fellowship. After graduation, both these young men found employment in the growing city of Sapporo, still continuing in the fellowship in Takikawa.
In the early 1990s, brethren from Hakodate joined with these young men and others from Takikawa to begin a permanent gospel work in Sapporo itself. The corrupted assemblies could not be reformed; the work had to begin again. There were challenges in the new work: Hakodate believers had to drive 10 hours round trip by car to have a one hour gospel meeting. Further, when a building had been secured for meetings, it burnt to the ground the day before the lease was signed.
Around this time, a brother from Hakodate decided to move his family to Sapporo. They, along with the two young men and a few other students, commenced breaking bread in 1993. Another brother from Niigata, a large city on the main island of Honshu, moved his family to Sapporo in 1995 and joined this fellowship. These two men are still overseers in the assembly today.
For several years, the assembly moved from one location to another, trying to find suitable premises in which to gather. All the while they preached the gospel. The young man who had first studied in Otaru now brought his work colleagues to hear the message. One of those saved became his wife. The other young man in Sapporo also married, and today they have four children. Families grew, and many of these offspring have been saved and added to the assembly. Still others moved to Sapporo for employment or for university studies, and a few years ago there were 10 young men under the age of 25 in fellowship.
As in most places where God has been pleased to establish a testimony, there have been difficulties. Youth brings zeal, but not always wisdom. Zealous brethren are not always the most compassionate, especially when there is the desire to have an assembly pure in doctrine and practice. This becomes a dangerous breeding ground for division, and the battle weary believer becomes silent in the gatherings.
However, the brethren in Sapporo are aware of their weaknesses, and unity is a constant theme of the weekly prayer meeting. Zealous men have been seen in tears, apologizing for words spoken in haste. Such an environment of confession and repentance has led to the spiritual growth of several young men. It is now not uncommon to hear over a dozen worship at the breaking of bread, filling their praise with quotations from Scripture. The need for ministry has been recognized, so the Sunday morning meeting has been extended an extra half hour: this allows two brethren to give at least 20 minutes each of teaching. There is also a Bible study on Tuesday evenings.
The spread of the gospel is difficult in idolatrous Japan, but these brethren make every effort to reach their fellow countrymen. Every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon there is a tract distribution. The same areas are covered repeatedly, and several have come to gospel meetings as a result. The current gathering place of the assembly is a large and commodious building that used to be a dance school. It is located in the north east part of the city, about 30 minutes by car from downtown.
In an effort to reach university students and office workers, there was a desire to establish a permanent gospel witness in the downtown core of the city. Two years ago this exercise was fulfilled, and at present there is a gospel meeting on Friday evenings in this new University Gospel Hall. It is encouraging to have several visitors at these meetings, and the saints are now praying about preaching there on Sunday afternoons as well. There are also gospel meetings each Sunday afternoon and Thursday evening at the regular Gospel Hall. As is typical in Japan, speakers are not chosen beforehand; it is only as the Spirit leads. This has the delightful result of hearing the most gifted speakers in the assembly on a regular basis.
The gospel’s power can even reach the hardened Japanese mind. Such is the grip of Satan that it usually takes months or even a year of regular attendance before a person understands the gospel message. And when a man or woman does make the break from idolatry and enters the waters of baptism, it is a costly step. A typical baptism takes place in the chilly Sea of Japan in summer, or a public hot springs if it is during the long winter. A man in his 30s was recently saved during special gospel meetings (he had attended regularly for almost four months), and his baptism was accompanied by a tremendous rainstorm. The soaked believers sang happily in the rain as he emerged from the sea. He has proved to be a very faithful brother, his public participation enhanced by the volumes of Scriptures he has diligently committed to memory. Tens of thousands of the tracts he has written have already been distributed. His wife had been saved the year before, and as a couple they are a rich asset to the assembly.
This past year another brother has been recognized as raised up by God to share in the responsibility of caring for the flock. He is the very brother who first came to Otaru to study in the 1980s. The saints appreciate his thoughtful and helpful contributions, and he is especially able to bring his colleagues out to gospel meetings. His responsibilities as a research director of a chemical company take him all over Japan, and it is not uncommon to hear that he has taken his colleagues with him to a gospel meeting in some other city.
Another brother of distinction is a young man who studied in Sapporo for nine years. His doctoral studies did not hinder his study of the Word of God, and when encouraged he flourished. Certain messages he gave in the assembly on the doctrine of justification were outstanding. His new employment took him to Yokohama where his preaching has been used mightily. Souls have been saved and the saints report being blessed by his edifying ministry. The saints in Sapporo would love for him to return to Hokkaido, but recognize that God needs faithful servants throughout the country.
Many will know that Japan has been shocked by the mega-quake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Tearful neighbors in Sapporo speak of trying to find true places of safety, but regrettably these same people do not seek after their Creator. This time of year the incense burns at the graves as the spirits of ancestors supposedly “return” for a visit. Travelers to Japan may be enthralled by the apparent beauty of the heathen temples and shrines, or marvel over the advanced technology, but resident Christians see only the shackles of a terrible demonic system that is sending loved ones into a lost eternity. It is in this environment that the assembly in Sapporo seeks to honor the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ” (Col 4:3).