iko Araki’s birth in 1890 nearly coincided with the birth of Adventism in Japan. The year before, evangelist Abram La Rue shared the Advent message on mainland Japan by handing out publications; he is commonly held to be the first Adventist to do so. A year later—around the time Aiko entered the world—Stephen Haskell reported that in Japan one man had been baptized, “some of them [keep] the Sabbath,” and still more expressed interest. These earliest believers were almost certainly the fruits of Abram’s diligent effort.
Aiko, or Ai, as she would be known throughout her life, would live through the fall of the Ottoman Empire, World Wars I and II, several crippling economic depressions, the rise of the United States and Russia as superpowers, and the ensuing Cold War. When she was born, the primary mode of transportation was horse and carriage, but she would live to witness a man on the moon.
Ai would experience trying times in her personal life as well. As a teenager, she went blind in the space of a few weeks. The doctors had no diagnosis. As an adherent of Tenrikyo, a sect of Shinto, Ai was assured that hinokishin (acts of gratitude) could restore her sight. But after she gave away all her money and possessions, she still could not see. Next, Ai tried tanno (joyous acceptance) to cope with her loss. But she could find no peace. The young girl seriously contemplated ending her life.
Somehow, she carried on and life began looking up for her—for a time. A traditional occupation for the visually impaired in Japan was massage therapy, and Ai determinedly trained in the art. She gained renown as a masseuse and also as a teacher in a school for the visually impaired. In her early twenties she married a man named Araki who had tuberculosis. They had a son, and shortly after, her husband passed away.
It may have seemed as if God had forsaken the blind, widowed, young mother, but He hadn’t. As World War I commenced, Ai met Hide Kuniya, one of the first people in her country to be baptized and become an ordained Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor. A giant of a pioneer, Kuniya began the Adventist work in Korea. As he did with hundreds of others, the humble man led Ai to Jesus. She was baptized at age 26 and began working for the church as a Bible instructor.
Ai developed into an uncanny soul-winner. One of her tried and true techniques was to take a Bible to her neighbors and ask them to read to her. The clever Ai always selected a particularly compelling passage, and, upon reading it, her neighbors’ interest would be heightened, a conversation would ensue, and Ai would lead them to Christ.
In the interwar years, Ai became a significant church leader on the island of Kyushu—a
licensed missionary and a member of the executive committee of the Kyushu Mission. Growth in the non-Christian country was never explosive, but progress was steady.
On the horizon, though, a more devastating war was fast approaching, destined to rock not only the globe but the fragile presence of Adventism in Northeast Asia. In the summer of 1937, Japan invaded China, thus initiating the war in the Pacific theater. With the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ai’s world again began closing in on her. Government paranoia manifested itself in surveillance of any secret meetings, especially of Christian churches, which were seen as foreign and thus suspicious. Adventism in particular was viewed as an American export, and after Emperor Hirohito (Japan), Benito Mussolini (Italy), and Adolph Hitler (Germany) signed the Tripartite Pact in late 1940 and the Axis alliance was cemented, Adventism’s foreign missionaries in Japan were persona non grata. In early 1941, the General Conference withdrew all missionaries from the nation.
Things got worse. While Ai quietly shared the truths of Scripture, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s official presence was almost completely eradicated in Japan in early 1943. One of the main reasons for this was the church’s emphasis on the second coming of Jesus, which cut crosswise with the cult of the emperor and the reign of the imperial house. On September 20, 1943, the government incarcerated 42 Adventists across the Japanese archipelago. With the majority of those imprisoned being Adventist leaders and the membership in Japan being fewer than 1,300, this seemed to be the deathblow. Ai was among those imprisoned, for she had been spreading Adventism in the country for a quarter of a century.
Ai had her treasured braille Bible confiscated by the police. She was closely interrogated, but because of her blindness, unimposing stature, and serene manner, she was released after being commanded not to speak of Christianity again. That September morning the lone woman exited the prison building with nowhere to go (her home had been destroyed by air raids), nothing to eat, many of her fellow believers imprisoned, and the doors of her little modest church bolted.
As she did at every other time in her turbulent life, Ai persevered. She rallied the scattered and terrified believers throughout her seaport home of Kagoshima. With the church officers locked up, she became pastor, elder, deacon, and treasurer, stopping at this house, that apartment, praying, encouraging, and uplifting. The statement she had made years earlier, “My life is always filled with prayer. In fact, my life is prayer,” was never truer than during this time.
Ai rallied the 40-some Adventists in the seaport town. It is said that her very presence was like a jolt of courage to them. Under her leadership through the impossible war years, her church, those 40 believers, did not miss one Sabbath meeting. On this Sabbath they assembled in the mountain forests, on that Sabbath in a Japanese cemetery park where gatherings would raise no suspicion. At each meeting, the tiny figure of Ai could be spotted, whether wrapped in a blanket in winter or under an umbrella in early summer. She was always marked by a patient determination that was stronger than all the power of the warring nations.
Periodically, Ai and her band of believers received word that an Adventist prisoner had died or certain members had been killed in blasts. When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ai’s nation seemed on the brink of extinction. But she kept her eye on her flock. By the time the war was over, only a quarter of the Adventists in Japan could be found. But all Ai’s group of 40 members was intact, the only congregation to emerge from the smoke of war.
Shortly after the war ended, Ai reported that 13 new converts had been baptized. The kingdom of God outlasted the most powerful kingdoms of this world. It was quiet, it appeared to suffer loss, but it would not be defeated. When the final round of ammunition rattled off in the distance, His truth marched on.
Japan is located within the 10/40 Window, a region of the world that presents mission with one of its toughest challenges. Stretching from northern Africa into the Middle East and Asia, this area is home to two-thirds of the world’s population, most of the world’s least-reached countries and people groups, and the fewest Christians. It’s a high priority for Global Mission church planting. To help, please visit Giving.AdventistMission.org.