In 1970 Kazuhiko Yamashita visited the Church's pavilion at the World's Fair in Osaka, Japan. Impressed with the missionaries' attitudes and the Latter-day Saint film, "Man's Search for Happiness," he wrote down his name and number and turned in a self-referral. Six months later, the missionaries called on him.
"Those missionaries were great," he said. "They were a good example to me. I was interested in their life and service. They were young and polite and I wanted to hear their message."
Still, Kazuhiko was a busy high school student and canceled many appointments.
One day he was filled with a "very sad feeling." He wanted to express gratitude to the missionaries who had been teaching him and to apologize for his half-hearted effort.
One missionary told Kazuhiko he would soon complete his mission and return to the United States. Kazuhiko committed to immediately learning about the gospel.
"Then the discussions started," he recalled. "I didn't understand their message well, but I knew they loved me. Their lives and example were the message of God. Then I was baptized."
Now, more than 40 years later, Elder Yamashita — a new member of the Church's First Quorum of the Seventy — looks back with gratitude for those patient, tenacious missionaries who changed his life.
Elder Yamashita grew up in Tokyo, Japan. His father was 56 years old when he was born; his mother 41 years old. They adopted a traditional Japanese parenting style in raising Kazuhiko and his older brother. In other words, "They were strict," he said.
Elder Yamashita's wife, Tazuko, was also raised in a traditional Japanese home and found the missionaries in her teens.
Tazuko Tashiro joined the Church in 1974 — a few years after her future husband. "I was seeking what is true. Is God real? I wanted to know. I went to Church myself," she said. "I asked the missionaries, 'Please teach me about the commandments."
She was interested in the message but said she wasn't able to pray sincerely. Then tragedy struck and her brother died. In that humbled state she "received an answer from Father in Heaven."
After a year of working with the missionaries, she was baptized.
Later she would serve as a missionary in the Japan Tokyo North Mission. In her last area she met a "very nice boy," who was in the ward and a member of the stake mission presidency.
A month after she returned home, she wrote to Kazuhiko and thanked him for his help while she was serving her mission.
Elder Yamashita said the letter arrived "express mail." He knew it was important.
"She had touched my heart," he said.
The couple had three long-distance dates; she traveled twice with her father to Tokyo and he journeyed once to her home in Kyushu.
"After three months we married," noted Elder Yamashita.
During the coming years the couple, which would eventually welcome six children into their family, found great happiness in Church activity and service. He worked as a university professor, she stayed home with the children.
In 1984 and 1985, the family went to Provo, Utah, where Elder Yamashita worked at BYU as a visiting professor.
When they returned to Japan he committed to helping the Church grow in his country. He found that through Church service, "step by step," he was "growing little by little, more kind and loving."
"The Church and Church callings are great and wonderful for growth," he explained.
Still the family was not without challenges.
One of the family's greatest challenges came when a son left Church activity for six years.
"We know that our Heavenly Father knows everything in our family. He knows our weakness, our challenges, our suffering, our patience. Everything," said Elder Yamashita. "Patience means waiting with hope."
As the family prayed for their son, their former bishop joined them. He put the boy's name on the temple prayer roll. "He prayed every day for my son," said Elder Yamashita.
Then the Yamashitas brought their children to Salt Lake City to attend general conference. Their son was seeking something and wanted to change himself.
He spoke to his sister, who had just finished serving in the Salt Lake City Mission, and was touched. Then, by himself, he offered a sincere prayer. He received a strong testimony that God lives and loved him and returned to Church activity.
"I had my miracle," Sister Yamashita said.
They have witnessed many other miracles in their life. The most recent came this year when a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Although the Yamashitas live in Fukuoka, Japan — a southern city far from the disaster zone — they have family and friends living in Northern Japan. When they heard news of the disaster, they turned on the news and watched the tsunami in "real time."
Their daughter-in-law is from Sendai; her parents' home was destroyed. Her father, a member of the stake presidency, did what so many Latter-day Saints did: Despite his personal loss, he reached out and helped others.
It wasn't a surprise.
It was something Elder Yamashita realized about Latter-day Saints more than 40 years ago when he attended the World’s Fair in Japan, met Latter-day Saint missionaries and watched, “A Man’s Search for Happiness.”
Family: Born Sept. 15, 1953, in Tokyo, Japan, to Sadae Nakazawa and Kiyoshi Yamashita; married Tazuko Tashiro March 29, 1980, in Tokyo, Japan (the couple was sealed in the Tokyo Japan Temple after its dedication on Oct. 17, 1980); six children: Takahiko (Airi), Hiromi (Yoichiro) Horikawa, Satomi (Kuniyuki) Toma, Misuzu, Masahiko, and Nobuhiko; three grandchildren.
Education: Received a bachelor’s degree in education from Saitama University and a master’s degree in sports science from Tsukuba University.
Employment: Worked as an assistant professor at Tsukuba University and a professor at Fukuoka University.
Church service: Former Area Seventy, stake president, stake mission president, high counselor, bishop and counselor in the Fukuoka Japan Mission presidency.