Sunday, July 12, 2009
Prison Ministry Experience - Kimihiro Nakata
This experience took place in post-war Japan, and is about a man who learned the Bible while on death row. (I'm combining info from a previous yearbook account along with some additional details passed along to me which were related by a circuit overseer in his talk).
Percy Iszlaub begins the story:
"In 1949 a Japanese man named Kimihiro Nakata murdered two men. He was paid to do it. Those were violent times. Millions of lives had been wasted on the battlefields, and, for a while, the violence of those times spilled over into the postwar years. My wife, Ilma, and I had just come to Japan as missionaries in the wake of World War II. Kimihiro was only 18 years of age then. The court sentenced him to death by hanging. If he had been only a few months younger, he could not have been given the death sentence. He was sent to Fukuoka prison and assigned to death row. In Japan it is not the policy to tell a condemned man when he will be executed. A person may be on death row for a week, a month, a year, or for many years; one man was there for 30 years."
...For eight years Kimihiro Nakata languished in his prison cell, awaiting the execution that might come any day. He was an extremely violent inmate who was considered incorrigible. He was so mean and ugly that he would spit on anyone that came near his cell and he would shout out the worst obscenities at people. He would often take his cup and bang it against the bars and shout "kill me now, kill me now". Everyone hated this man, there were not very many that didn't want to hang him themselves!
Nakata takes an interest in the Bible
During his long confinement in prison his thoughts turned to religion, and he took instruction from a missionary of one of the nominal Christian sects. Though he read and reread and enjoyed the Bible and developed a great love for it, he found that his religious instructor could not explain it to him ... In the meantime ... Jehovah's Witnesses were doing street work and placed some magazines with a man. At first, the fellow decided he would discard them in the next trash-can. As he walked along however, he thought of a man he knew in prison (Nakata) and decided to send them to him instead. As soon as Nakata read The Watchtower, understanding flashed into his mind. All that he had been reading in the Bible came alive. He wrote the Tokyo Branch of the Watch Tower Society for further information and a magazine subscription, and eventually arrangements were made for a pioneer minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses to call on him.
This follow-up information was given to a special pioneer, who went out looking for the address on his bicycle. When he came to the guard station the guards ask "who are you looking for?" He says a man named Nakata. They both replied, "NAKATA!" "Are you sure you want to see HIM?" they ask. This doesn't dismay the brother, and off he goes up to the big gate, and asks to see the warden. Even the warden says "What do you want with the man Nakata?" The pioneer explains and is allowed inside. He has to go through heavy steel doors and gates and comes to this very thick door, with a small window about two and a half inches in size with wire mesh, just big enough to see the person on the other side. The brother starts talking to Nakata, and can tell he has been reading the magazines and seems to have a great deal of interest in them, so he offers him a Bible study. Nakata readily accepts it. So the brother begins to have a study with him every week. They have to conduct it with that thick door between them, though.
"The New Personality"
Very soon changes begin, and Kimihiro Nakata completely abandons his “old personality.” He even begins to apologize to people he had previously spit upon and screamed rebukes at. He tells them he is studying the Bible and learning a new way of life, and he asks them for forgiveness and he would tell them a little about the Kingdom. He would try to write to people he could not contact from his cell. He continued to make great progress each day, and this encouraged the brother studying with him, so much so, that he even kept the local congregation informed on Nakata's progress.
Dedication and Baptism
Nakata was also preaching to everyone on every occasion he could, and it wasn't long before he had dedicated himself to serving Jehovah. So the brother went to see the warden and asked if he could baptize Nakata. The warden said he didn't see why not, they would just get some water and sprinkle it on his head. The brother explained that was not the proper way to be baptized and explained that Nakata would have to be completely covered by the water, and then come up out of the water, symbolizing how he would in effect, die to his old way of life an come out of the water to a new way of life, like Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan. The warden said that was a bit of a problem, but that they would have to find a way, because he had never seen anyone change so much as Nakata! So they had the baptism on death row, and they were able to have a number of the brothers come in and witness it.
How would you feel if you had a study like that and then were sent away? That was just what happened, the special pioneer was sent to another part of Japan on a new assignment. So he went to the Fukuoka missionary home, and asked Percy Iszlaub (the Australian missionary who had moved to Japan, who related the beginning of this story above) if he would continue the study.
Percy Meets Nakata
Br. Iszlaub was delighted and went right over and resumed the Bible study. Nakata continued to read everything he could get his hands on, and he was making application of what he was learning. Finally, Percy went to the warden, and asked if they could study face to face. The warden said that this sort of thing is unheard of, as this man is on death row. But, the warden says, even though it is against all regulations, I'm going to let you study in the recreation center, next to my office. The warden had noticed the changes in this man, and that was why he allowed it, however, they had to have an armed guard go along with them.
The first time they met face to face, Nakata just grabbed and hugged Percy, considering him a real brother, and tears came to both of them. Every week they would study one hour, and during that time Br. Iszlaub would also bring out a point from the Watchtower, Book Study, Service Meeting, Theocratic Ministry School, and the Public Talk. So that hour was always jam-packed! The guard couldn't believe his ears, he kept hearing Nakata make the heartfelt statements that a Christian would make. The guard became so impressed to see the changes in this man that he began to allow them an extra 15 minutes each week. He began to like Nakata and sometimes he would even allow them a little extra time. Percy began to look upon him as a son, and a close bond developed between them.
Preaching from Prison
Now that he was a full-fledged brother, Nakata wanted to do so much more, even though he was limited in prison. Percy described him as “one of the most zealous Kingdom publishers I have known.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)
So he wrote a beautiful poem, about the New World, Jehovah God, and the Kingdom. He then entered it into a contest, and it won first prize. The winner was to go to the governor's mansion and accept the award from the governor himself. They ended up having to make a change in the arrangements; guess who went to death row? The governor! But this only made more publicity for the poem. It was published, and many more received a witness from death row by means of that beautiful poem.
He wrote the family of the persons he killed, witnessing to them, and they expressed interest. He also witnessed extensively to his own family. He studied Braille, and transcribed the book “Let God Be True,” the booklet “This Good News of the Kingdom” and Watchtower and Awake! articles into Braille. These publications were distributed to different parts of Japan, including schools for the blind.
Nakata would write letters to the congregation expressing his appreciation, and would encourage them not to take the brotherhood or the meetings for granted. He said "if you could see it from my situation, I would even crawl several miles to the meetings and crawl back if I could." He said they would never know how much he wanted to be there with them. Then he would say he wondered what it would be like to preach regularly on the outside, to visit and associate with other families.
Early on June 10, 1959, a police car pulled up at the missionary home. Nakata had requested Percy’s presence at his execution that morning. Percy complied. In the execution yard, they conversed briefly, Nakata said to Percy: “Why are you shivering, Percy? I am the one who should be nervous.” He then said: “Today I feel strongly confident in Jehovah, and in the ransom sacrifice and the resurrection hope. Never have I felt stronger in my life than I do today.” They sang a Kingdom song together, read from the Bible and had a final prayer, all of which was a fine witness to the twelve officials present. After asking that his love be conveyed to Jehovah’s organization and the brothers throughout the earth, he was led to the gallows, his face shining with appreciation of his hope of sharing in Jehovah’s new order through the resurrection.
Kimihiro Nakata died to satisfy justice, giving life for life—not as a hopeless, hardened criminal, but as a dedicated, baptized, faithful servant of Jehovah. His father became an elder in a congregation, and Nakata's invalid mother also became a witness, as well as many others.
The circuit overseer closed with these remarks to the congregation by saying, "before today you probably never heard of this brother, but Jehovah knew about him. In the new system we will meet brothers like that, but we have to endure and highly esteem Jehovah and the brotherhood as something wonderful in our lives, and not let it take a back seat to anything."