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President Boyd K. Packer and other Mormon soldiers spread the gospel in post-war Japan

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 7 2010 9:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — They wore dog tags, not name tags, and instead of white shirts and ties, they were recognizable by Army fatigues and dusty boots. As occupation troops in Japan after World War II, soldiers were tasked with evaluating the damage, beginning the rebuilding process and organizing the transport of soldiers going back home.

Yet, for LDS Army servicemen like C. Elliott Richards and now President Boyd K. Packer, their military experience became more like LDS missions as they dedicated themselves to teaching and testifying to former enemies about the love of Jesus Christ.

"If there is true love and understanding of our Heavenly Father's plan, then it doesn't matter what color people's skin is," said Richards, who since his Army days has served as an LDS mission president of the Philippines Cebu Mission, an LDS temple president of the Jordan River Utah Temple with his wife Margaret as matron, and still meets weekly around Salt Lake City for lunch with fellow LDS soldiers who served in Tokyo. "The souls of (Japanese) people are just as rich and inviting and needing as anyone else's."

During the war, Richards, a second lieutenant, trained troops in Oklahoma, Texas and Georgia, and was sent to Japan only after the war's end, for which he was grateful. Upon arriving at the 11th Replacement Depot, around 17 miles north of Narumi, (now called Midori-ku Nagoya-shi) the Salt-Lake-City boy found a group of LDS servicemen, including Ray Hanks, Mel Arnold and Reed Davis.

The men excitedly told him of an English-speaking Japanese man they'd met in a silk shop, then later in a tea shop.

When the three politely refused a warm drink of tea on the cold night stating they were Mormons, the Japanese man was intrigued, and invited them to his home to teach him more about their religion.

Richards immediately joined the LDS soldiers in their frequent gospel discussions with the Japanese man, Tatsui Sato, and his wife, Chiyo, and their 6-year-old son Yasuo. A 3-year-old daughter, Atsuko, had died during the war.

"And thus began for me, one of the most memorable experiences of my life," Richards said, quoting from his personal history. "I shall never forget my first night in their humble home, sitting on the floor with my feet under a quilt, absorbing heat from the single charcoal pot in the center of the room. It was cold and snowy outside, but inside we were all burning with the Spirit of the Lord."

The Satos learned quickly and even began holding Sunday School in their home with neighborhood children. Along with lessons, the U.S. soldiers often brought army rations for the Satos and their starving neighbors.

Richards remembers leaving the depot in March 1946 with a sad heart, knowing there was no one nearby to continue teaching the Satos. Yet he, and the other soldiers, continued to write letters, sharing their testimonies and encouraging them to keep praying and reading the Book of Mormon.

A few months later, Richards was in Tokyo at a Sunday meeting, when he became riveted by one of the speakers. After the meeting he introduced himself to Lt. Boyd K. Packer, who was also serving in Japan, and the two began studying the scriptures together. A few days after, Richards said he showed Lt. Packer the letters from Tatsui Sato.

"I always thank the Lord for my privilege of being informed of the true gospel," Sato wrote. "Being selected, out of, truly, scores of hundred thousand people as a believer or a seeker of the true Gospel, I am always looking for a chance to do some good work that would be nice before the Lord. I make it a rule to read the 'Joseph Smith Own Story' as it is my favorite story and I read it repeatedly and also I am reading the Articles of Faith which you left to me as your memorial book."

Lt. Packer was so impressed that he and Richards began praying that the Satos could be baptized.

Thanks to prayers and coordination with LDS Chaplain Richard Nelson, the Satos were baptized on July 7, 1946, in a preserved swimming pool at the destroyed Kansai University. Richards baptized Sato and Lt. Packer baptized Sato's wife, Chiyo.

"He was one of the most impressive men I've ever known," President Packer said recently of Sato. "He was a slow speaker and very wise."

At the time of the baptism, Lt. Packer remembers noting that Sato's language skills would make him a valuable asset to the church in Japan. That insight proved to be true as Sato later retranslated the standard works and other church materials, served as a mission translator and translator for visiting General Authorities and translated the temple ceremonies.

Not only did Sato greatly influence the growth of the LDS Church in Japan, which included the reopening of Japan for missionaries in 1948, he forever changed the way the LDS soldiers viewed the Japanese people.

In a letter from the book, "The Other Side of the Rising Sun," by Komae Mori, Army soldier and lead teacher of the Sato family, Ray Hanks, wrote of his feelings.

"Such men like Mr. Sato has shown me that the average Japanese is a peace-loving individual who loves life as we do, and wants to live it the best he knows how," Hanks wrote in December 1945. He passed away in 1981. "As for me, I have no enmity toward them. Their warlords are the guilty ones and not the masses."

As a young boy, President Packer said he grew up knowing many Japanese people who lived near Brigham City, and thus came to the war with no animosity or hatred, despite the negative comments and images swirling around him.

"People are people," President Packer told the Deseret News. "They speak different languages, are different races, but people are people. We're all God's children."

And because of that understanding, leaving the Satos at the end of his service was a poignant moment, as President Packer describes in one of his biographies written by Lucile Tate.

"We had learned to love them, and they us, officers of a conquering army," he said. "We were taught a remarkable lesson among the Japanese people. After all our training and instructions to demean them, to subdue them, we found that they were a good people and as individuals they were worthy of the gospel. They were seeking light, and even in their terrible circumstances they had many virtues that we might emulate."

When Richards arrived home, he often talked about his experiences with others.

"I was so filled … with new growth, new understanding … and love for the Japanese people that I knew, that you bet I shared it," he said.

In fact, Richards and his family stayed in touch with the Satos, and after Chiyo passed away and Tatsui moved to Utah, he lived in the Richards' basement for six months before he remarried and bought a home.

Tatsui was just as busy in Utah as he had been in Japan; remarrying Tomiko Hiranishi, teaching for a time at BYU, serving as a sealer in the Salt Lake Temple, in the branch presidency of the Dai Ichi Branch in Japan and as a temple missionary in the Tokyo Japan Temple. He was also heavily involved in genealogy.

Sato passed away June 15, 1996, but Richards still thinks of him often, and how he believes Sato was prepared to help the church make such monumental strides in Japan.

As he praises Sato, Richards is quick to deflect any praise as a teacher or missionary, stating that he was just in the right place at the right time.

"I'm just grateful the Lord blessed me with the opportunity," he said.

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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