The journey of a kamikaze to Christ

By PAUL BAYLIS, Asahi Shimbun News Service

from  19 August 2001 edition [Anglicised spelling]


If Yukio “Paul” Tashiro were a character in a novel, critics might scoff at such an unbelievable life.  No one, they would say, could have been through so much or have made such an astonishing transformation-from fanatic wartime emperor worshipper and would-be kamikaze pilot, to charismatic Christian preacher in the American South.


Born in a geisha house, educated in a Zen temple, witness to the horrors of the atomic bomb, pimp, pusher, businessman, scholar and finally, the only Japanese-born ordained minister in the United States, Tashiro's life is like a microcosm of modern Japanese history, and a ship that has charted the perilous waters between two cultures.  And somehow, through it all, he has kept a pretty good sense of humour.


The oldest of six children, Tashiro was born in 1933 in his father's geisha house in eastern Tokyo, home to five geisha where his mother was the “mama san.” Despite spending his early years in a house of entertainment (some might say “brothel”), Tashiro's education began in the most spartan of environments-a Zen temple.  For hours, he would sit on a cold wooden floor in a thin kimono, meditating on “the compassion of Buddha.” In reality, however, he thought of little other than the pain he was feeling.  But the discipline helped prepare him for the trials to come, including his studies in theology and languages that eventually earned him a Ph.D. in the United States.  “The training taught me how to shut out everything and devote myself to prayer,” he said in a recent interview.


He lived in the geisha house and meditated at the temple until the intensity of the U.S. air raids over Tokyo forced Tashiro and his siblings to stay with relatives near Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.  His father, however, a respected community leader, was in charge of a youth paramilitary group and responsible for instilling a willingness to sacrifice for the emperor-a message Tashiro took to heart.  “I didn't have a speck of doubt that it was my duty to give my life for the emperor in time of crisis,” he said.


In early 1945, at age 12-still two years too young for military service-he volunteered for the kamikaze force, dodging the age restriction with the help of his father's connections to influential politicians.  Only after the war, did he find out his father never wanted him to volunteer for a certain-death mission at such a young age.  “I took what he said at face value,” said Tashiro.  “But after the war”, he told me, “that was not my intention.”


Tashiro was sent to Kyushu for pilot training, which mainly involved physical endurance, survival skills and “brainwashing.” With an instructor, he learned how to take off and climb, but never to land.  But before he could set out on his one-way mission, the war ended and U.S.  troops had started occupying the country.  On Aug.  18, two weeks after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Tashiro was returning to Tokyo in a train supervised by American soldiers.  At the outskirts of Hiroshima, they stopped the train and had everyone get out and walk from the western edge of the city to the east along the coast, several kilometres from the epicentre of the blast.  “Nothing was moving,” said Tashiro.  “There was nothing but skeletons of buildings and piles and piles of dead bodies.”


Tokyo was not much better.  Tashiro's home had been razed and food and jobs were scarce.  His life so far seemed little more than a cruel hoax.  “If all I had been taught during those years was wrong, then who, or what could I believe?”


Again using his father's connections, Tashiro joined the yakuza as a chimpira (junior soldier).  His main activities were selling drugs and pimping for GIs, from whom he learned a crude, street-savvy English.  “I don't know how many times I was put in jail,” he said.  “You can imagine what sort of language I spoke.”


After three years as a gangster, Tashiro was passing by a tent one night when a burly American pulled him in and planted him in the front row of a congregation of 250 people.  A tall, bald American who weighed about 130 kilograms began to preach, pronouncing, “God gave his only begotten son for you!” The words went through Tashiro like a spear.  “I was so happy to hear someone was still loving me, I began to cry,” he said.  From behind, someone pushed him to the front of the congregation, where the reverend coaxed him to confess his sins.  “Everything I had done, I confessed to Jesus that night.”


But Jesus wasn't the only one listening.  The preacher, a Reverend Rice, also noted the long and sordid list of Tashiro's underworld escapades.  The next day, Rice hauled him down to a police station and struck a deal: Tashiro would not be thrown in jail if Rice would take responsibility for him.  From then on, Tashiro lived in the U.S. missionary compound in Shinjuku, where the missionaries called him ``Paul.''


Gradually, his filthy English was replaced with a more refined missionary English.  Soon, he was good enough to interpret-a job he did for the missionaries over the next four years.  By then, however, he regretted his lack of formal education and decided to attend high school full time for three years.  Afterward, he had doubts about making a living in the church.  “I was scared.  I saw churches with only 10 to 15 people in them, and thought, I can't live like this.”


Instead, he worked for a trading company for a decade, marrying in 1962.  Then, after a bout of tuberculosis landed him in the hospital for three months, often near death, he reflected again on what he wanted to do with his life.  In 1969, he went to Atlanta and enrolled at Oglethorpe College as an undergraduate in philosophy.  He then studied Hebrew at a Jewish reform college, where the rabbis called him “Shapiro” to make his name easier to remember.  Eventually, he became an ordained minister in the United Methodist church.


Tashiro began preaching at churches in small towns around the American South.  But instead of the prejudice sometimes associated with the region, Tashiro found nothing but goodwill and curiosity.  Everyone seemed interested in Japan's side of the war.  “Kamikaze lands in Kentucky,” declared one newspaper headline.  When Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia, Tashiro was called on to be his Japanese translator.


On one occasion, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Tashiro was preaching to a congregation that was singing a hymn- “How great Thou art ...  How great Thou art ...” -when a blind, one-armed man came hobbling down the aisle, weeping.  The singing died down as the man asked, “Brother Paul, can I touch you? ...  If I had met you five years ago, I would have killed you.  I hated Japs.  I lost my arm and my eyesight to a kamikaze pilot.”  The veteran then wrapped his one arm around Tashiro and said, “I love you.” The voice of the congregation rose up again: “How great Thou art! ...  How great Thou art!”


By 1991, Tashiro's life had come full circle.  His own son was a tank instructor in the U.S.  military when the Persian Gulf War broke out.  “I didn't expect to hear such a thing again after so many years,” said Tashiro.  “All my experiences came back to me.”  But the war was over before Tashiro's son could see action.


Now considered one of fewer than 50 experts in Semitic languages in the United States, Tashiro lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he teaches at a biblical seminary.  He spent much of a recent visit to Japan at Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture studying the connection between “proto-Japanese” scriptures and Semitic languages.  This, he says, would support a theory that the ancient Japanese were related to the ancient tribes of Israel, and to early Christians.  Asked whether he would consider coming back to Japan to preach, he dismissed the idea, saying, “I am totally an outsider.  I am Americanised.  I am outspoken.  I could not be effective in Japan.”


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