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Episode 163: Elder Gary E. Stevenson on the Okinawa Japan Temple — a symbol of peace in a land once defined by war

‘I have really been touched by all of the elements that have been part of the lives of people in Okinawa,’ says Elder Stevenson during a Church News podcast interview

On Sunday, Nov. 12, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the Okinawa Japan Temple, the fourth temple in Japan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While the first missionaries arrived in Tokyo in the early 1900s, the Church didn’t have a presence in Okinawa until the 1940s, when World War II brought American servicemen to the area. During April 2019 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson announced a temple to be built in this historic area. 

Elder Stevenson has a rich history in Japan, where he served as a young missionary and later returned as a businessman, mission president and area president. He joins this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about his love for Japan’s people and culture and the rich blessings a new house of the Lord brings to these temple-loving people. 

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Transcript:

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: I have really been touched by all of the elements that have been part of the lives of people in Okinawa. I have been touched by the ravages that war had on their families. And this is a tender time to think that the Lord has chosen Okinawa, Japan, to be a place for His house, the house of the Lord, with holiness to the Lord. And when you think about holiness to the Lord and what that demands of each of us — kindness and unity and love and respect, charity — it is everything that we hope could happen to redeem people from the horrific things that were suffered.

1:02

Sarah Jane Weaver: This is Sarah Jane Weaver, executive editor of the Church News, welcoming you to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

On Sunday, Nov. 12, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the Okinawa Japan Temple, the fourth temple in Japan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the first missionaries arrived in Tokyo in the early 1900s, the Church didn’t have a presence in Okinawa until the 1940s, when World War II brought American servicemen to the area. On Aug. 14, 1955, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith — then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — formally dedicated Okinawa for the preaching of the gospel.

President Russell M. Nelson announced the temple for Okinawa during April 2019 general conference. Elder Stevenson has a rich history in the nation, where he served as a young missionary. Okinawa was actually part of his mission. He later returned to Japan for business, to serve as a mission president, and to serve in the area presidency and then as area president. He joins this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about his love for Japan and its people and the rich blessings of the temple.

So, Elder Stevenson, you’re called as a young man to go to Japan to serve. Tell us about your feelings when you first opened that call, and you couldn’t have glimpsed the history you’d have in that nation at that moment, so.

Elder Gary E. Stevenson and his companion during his time as a full-time missionary in Japan. | Courtesy Elder Gary E. Stevenson

2:41

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Yeah, you are right. I was called as a young missionary in 1974. And I had no idea, really; Japan as a place where I might serve as a missionary was not on my radar screen at all. I was called to the Japan Fukuoka Mission. And I just absolutely loved my service there. Now, the Fukuoka Mission is southern Japan, and so it includes the island of Kyushu, but it also includes the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is a part. And so, I actually served on a small island north of Okinawa, between Okinawa and mainland Japan, Amami Ōshima, when I was a young missionary.

There is really quite a difference in the culture and the feeling of people and society on the islands. And so, this is just a unique opportunity for me now to be back in Japan, in a place that was part of my mission as a young missionary, with the island people of Japan, and to see — really miraculous; an absolute dream come true for them to think about having a temple on the island of Okinawa.

Church leaders stand together outside the Okinawa Japan Temple.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson; Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Temple Department, and Sister Nancy Duncan; and Elder Takashi Wada, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Asia North Area, and his wife, Sister Naomi Wada, stand outside the temple before the Okinawa Japan Temple dedication in Okinawa on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

4:07

Sarah Jane Weaver: And Okinawa is a place that has mixed history, you know. So much of its history is defined by World War II. The Church also kind of got its roots after the war. So, in just the years since then, to now have this great symbol of peace on the island is miraculous. Can you talk about what the temple will mean to the members there?

4:26 

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Well, it is miraculous now. We think about the temple district that will be Okinawa. And we have the stake of Okinawa there, Japanese people that have been longing to have a temple on their island for generations now. And we have the Okinawa military district also that is there. And we still have a lot of military personnel who are stationed in Okinawa. And so, we have the district and the stake that are coming together, and there is a fabulous sense of unity that they feel together. They have been attending in the same buildings and worshipping together, and somehow, language and culture has not been a barrier.

And to be able to have the temple and to have the history that is part of both of those groups come together in a temple, and the unity that they feel together, is really quite a remarkable thing. And so, we will be able to have a dedicatory session in Japanese and a dedicatory session in English. And so, members will be able to kind of attend a session in the language of their hearts. Before the dedication on Sunday, we have a member meeting on Friday night, which includes all of the members of both the district and the stake that will be gathered together.

And so it is quite an interesting thing to see the way that the gospel of Jesus Christ navigated its way through difficulties, through cultural differences, through language, to find itself established on the island of Okinawa, and to think about the blessings that are coming to those people on the other side of the veil that have been anxiously awaiting and looking forward to a time when a temple would be part of the Church of Jesus Christ, the restored Church of Jesus Christ in Okinawa.

Related Story
In a place once defined by war, Elder Stevenson dedicates the Okinawa Japan Temple — a symbol of peace and unity

6:50

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, the Okinawa Temple is one of many temples in Japan. It will be the fourth dedicated, the fifth that President Nelson has announced. Can you talk about temple work for the Japanese people?

7:03

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Well, the Japanese people, maybe as much as anyone in the whole earth, revere temples. They are a temple-going society. It is part of their culture to be able to attend a temple. Any holiday in Japan is nearly assuredly going to include, at some point in that holiday, a visit to a local temple or shrine. Well, this culture has extended itself and blended with our temple-going culture as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when we consider Kirtland and Nauvoo and the early temples in Utah and the great joy that temple worship and service brought to the early members of the Church here.

Well, this is happening in Japan, of course. The Tokyo temple was dedicated in 1980. And since that time, we have had the Fukuoka temple. President Nelson, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated the Sapporo temple. And now, the Okinawa temple and the announcement of the Okinawa temple and its dedication that is scheduled. And then, of course, just last month, President Nelson announced the temple to be built in Osaka, Japan. And so, our Japanese Saints are blessed and grateful. And we find them as some of the most active, temple-going, temple-attending, temple-worshipping Latter-day Saints in the whole world.

And so now we have this shift where we have people from Okinawa that are going to be able to, without getting on an airplane and flying somewhere, are going to be able to worship in a temple on their island, and other islands in the temple district that will be in close proximity to Okinawa. You know, the early Latter-day Saints in Japan longed to go to the temple. And the history, of course, is filled with the planning and chartering of airplanes to be able to fly to the temple in Hawaii to be able to receive their own endowments and then to be able to do ancestral ordinances for others.

And such was the case in Okinawa as well, early when the Church was established there, when we started seeing Japanese members in the 1950s begin to join the Church, and one of the first things they did was to begin with a longing to go to the temple, begin to plan, and some of those early temple trips that required planning and sacrifice and to be able to do the work in Hawaii. Now, we see five temples that are going to be in Japan.

Toyoko Uechi, 98, smiles while arriving for the Okinawa Japan Temple dedication in Okinawa on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

10:20

Sarah Jane Weaver: Talk about your own personal history in Japan. After your mission, you returned for business and then as a mission president and then as a general authority.

10:30

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Well, I served as a young missionary in Japan and had two years there and was down — I was in southern Japan and down on the islands. Okinawa was part of our mission. And really, one of the motivations for the beginning of my business career was with a friend who had served a mission in Taiwan, and I had served a mission in Japan, and the first thing that we were thinking when we were business students is, “What could we do in business that would get us back to the place that is such a big part of our heart?” And for me, that was Japan. And so, the international element of our business really had that as the basis, the beginning. And that afforded me the opportunity to be able to be back in Asia and to be with the people that I had come to love.

And then right in the midst of that business career, to be called to be able to serve, Lesa and I, as mission leaders in Nagoya. And we were there for three years. And so, southern Japan as a young missionary, kind of there in central Japan as mission leaders. And not too long after that, we then were asked to serve again in the area presidency, headquartered in Tokyo, but with, you know, with all of Japan as part of the Asia North Area, and to become familiar with the other parts of Japan, which included that whole Greater Tokyo area, and then Hokkaido.

And so, it is a part of our lives. I feel, when people talk about, you know, what they might want to eat, they will talk about a good steak, and we will talk about sushi and rice with a longing, and miso soup, thinking about that more than other kinds of foods that we might be able to find. And so, it has become a large part of my heart, and a large part of the gospel of my life has been enjoyed in Japan.

On June 15, 2011, three months after earthquake and tsunami in Japan, then-Presiding Bishop H. David Burton and Elder Gary E. Stevenson, then a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Asia North Area, survey destruction in Higashi Matsushima, Japan, a coastal community devastated by the disaster. | Photo by Sarah Weaver

12:53 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And while you were area president, a huge tsunami hit Japan. From that experience, what did you learn about Japanese resiliency?

13:03

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Well, that was tragic. And we were living in Tokyo at the time of the earthquake and tsunami that came in 2011. Devastation. Devastating for them. More than 20,000 people lost their lives there. Of course, we had missionaries and Latter-day Saints who were populating all up and down that northeastern coastline. And miraculously, we came through with no missionary fatalities and very, very few member fatalities. But that notwithstanding, a lot of our members who were deeply affected by that lost their homes and lost family members.

And we were central to the emergency response and recovery. It was just remarkable to see the reaction of the Church institutionally to address first-emergency-response issues. And we were early there with the Japan Red Cross and other wonderful groups, NGOs and groups of people who are extending care and helping in emergency response. And we were even present much longer in recovery efforts. And this is where we saw the resilience of members of the Church, those that were affected in the area, but members of the Church who really assisted in just the most remarkable ways in emergency response.

And we had a presence up in that area for 18 months following the earthquake and tsunami. Every single week, there were members of the Church who would, if they could get to Tokyo, each week, we had busloads of members that we would take, and we would get them up into the affected areas, and they were providing recovery. And this was deeply recognized by our friends there in Japan, both the people who lived there and other agencies and government officials who we would hear wonderful expressions from, from our friends over there of their gratitude for the presence that we had there.

During a cornerstone ceremony for the Sapporo Japan Temple, President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, stand with children invited to participate, from left, Kuhi Kikuchi, 10; Ryuto Miyamoto, 8; Hina Iwamoto, 7; Kaito Miyamoto, 6; and Miku Nigita, 4, who is helped by her father, Haruhiko Nigita. Elder Elder Larry Y. Wilson of the Seventy looks on from behind. | Sarah Jane Weaver

15:38

Sarah Jane Weaver: Talk about some of your experiences at the dedications of other temples in Japan, You were in Sapporo with President Nelson.

15:47

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Well, this was a unique role in Sapporo. I was in the area presidency when the site analysis began, and the First Presidency had Bishop [Dean M.] Davies of the Presiding Bishopric come and involve the area presidency in a site search, which led us being able to recommend to the First Presidency. And then the groundbreaking that took place there. I was still in the area presidency. I was able to conduct the groundbreaking.

And then I was transferred to Salt Lake City. And that is when I was in the Presiding Bishopric. And the ground had been broken, but now the construction, and I was involved in the whole construction of the Sapporo temple. And then, gratefully, President Nelson — then the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and I, a new member of the Twelve — invited me to participate with him in the dedication of the Sapporo temple.

So we kind of saw that from the beginning to the end, and it is just a spectacular temple, and the members of the Church, of course, in northern Japan love it. But even those who are not members of the Church who live in Japan, who so deeply appreciate temples, appreciate the Sapporo temple being there. When we describe to them what happens in a temple, in our temples, when we are able to describe things that are sacred to us, ordinances that are sacred to us that include baptism or include an eternal marriage, an endowment that takes place in a holy temple and with ceremonial clothing, this rings so true to them. And when we describe to our Japanese friends that we can do this for ourselves, but we can give this gift to deceased ancestors, you just cannot imagine the emotion that that has for them to recognize that one of the gifts that we give, that is our most cherished gift, is to our deceased ancestors and that we are able to do that in our holy temples.

And so, I have not experienced anything quite like this anywhere else in the world, where you see the awe and the respect and the reverence that they have as you describe that, and I was able to do that in the temple open house in Tokyo. And to do this with a lot of our friends, many that are prominent in their professions in government or law or business or medicine, whatever it was. And they were deeply touched and in many cases brought to tears when we had a chance to describe that in the room where it takes place, because they were able to stand there in the temple, in the temple open house.

So it is pretty special. And we had the same thing that happened in Okinawa as the temple open house took place there, conducted by the area presidency, and many, many people in Okinawa, and their thoughts and feelings are even more tender and really quite deep because of the history that we have in Okinawa. And to think that we can honor those people, many who had untimely deaths that were associated with war, and now something that can bring peace and comfort and unity of heart and mind and respect and devotion to our departed ancestors, giving them ancestral ordinances.

Church leaders walk the grounds of the Okinawa Japan Temple.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson, and Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Temple Department, and Sister Nancy Duncan, and Elder Takashi Wada, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Asia North Area, and his wife, Sister Naomi Wada, walk the temple grounds before the Okinawa Japan Temple dedication in Okinawa on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

20:13

Sarah Jane Weaver: So, you received this assignment to dedicate the temple by President Nelson.

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Yes.

Sarah Jane Weaver: When you got that assignment, what were your feelings?

20:22

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: We, of course, in the Twelve, we do not seek assignments; we receive assignments. And once we receive the assignments, we joyfully go wherever that assignment leads us. And so this is our life. When we receive an assignment, we receive it with joy, and we perform it wherever it might be. And we usually do not have a lot of vision in the future. We might get a six-month view of what we are going to be doing in the future, when we receive assignments for a temple dedication.

It is a very touching thing. It has not been that many years where members of the Twelve have been able to receive assignments to dedicate temples, and those come directly from our dear Prophet. And I will never forget when I received that assignment by letter and opened the letter and saw that I was going to be able to be in Japan to dedicate a temple. It is indescribable joy that I have, and I am truly humbled by it. I am grateful to be able to receive that assignment from President Nelson and perform that under his direction.

21:42

Sarah Jane Weaver: Talk a little bit more about your family’s connection to Japan. Because of all your assignments, you had kids that went to school there that would also love the culture and the language. Lesa certainly has great friends and memories and feelings for this country as well.

21:59

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: My memories really go back to when I was a young boy myself. Growing up in Cache Valley, one would not expect a deep connection with international countries. But my father was employed at Utah State University, and one of the significant elements at Utah State was the presence of a lot of international students. And over the years, many of them from Asia, including Japan. And so, I remember as a young boy, even 4 or 5, 6 years old, international students that would come to our home, and a number of those international students in our home that were from Japan, and gaining an appreciation for Asia through those experiences that we had as a family.

And then, of course, when I was 18 years old, receiving my mission call to Japan, that just seemed to elevate that anticipation and created many friendships and associations. And those continued and continued with our family. We were a family that loved the Japanese culture and were enjoying all the elements of the culture, including our love for Asian food and Japanese food, even with our young children growing up. And then we had the whole family when we received the call to Nagoya to serve as mission leaders. The whole family went. We had older boys who were at Utah State and high school and grade school sons that came with us and stayed with us and enrolled in school there. And the rest of the family that were very close, traveling back and forth there a lot.

So it became a family affair, and when our service finished in Nagoya, then it was just a year later that we moved back to Tokyo, and we were there for four years. So I have spent nine years of my life, and we have got sons now who have been there many years. Lesa lived there seven years herself. I pointed out to her recently that when people ask her where she is from, she says, “Well, I’m from Idaho,” and I said, “Do you realize, Lesa, you lived in Japan more years than you lived in Idaho? You could just as easily say, ‘I’m from Japan, and I’m from Idaho now.’” That is kind of how we feel. it is a home for us.

Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial in Okinawa, Japan, on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

24:34

Sarah Jane Weaver: As you’ve pondered and thought about the message you want to share with the Saints in Okinawa during the dedication, is there something that has impressed upon you?

24:44

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Well, I have really been touched by all of the elements that have been part of the lives of people in Okinawa. I have been touched by the hardships that they have had. I have been touched by the ravages that war had on their families. And this is a tender time to think that the Lord has chosen Okinawa, Japan, to be a place for His house, the house of the Lord, with holiness to the Lord. And when you think about holiness to the Lord and what that demands of each of us, it demands kindness and unity and love and respect, charity, brotherly kindness. It is everything that we hope could happen to redeem people from the horrific things that were suffered by the people there.

And not only is it for us who are living, but it is also for our deceased ancestors, who were some of those that were right in the midst of those horrific things that took place. And so there is a remarkable sense of redemption that happens. The words of President Nelson that we so often hear about “gathering Israel on both sides of the veil,” it becomes possible because we have temples. It becomes possible because those restored keys that allow us to connect with our ancestors and our posterity, that allow the sealing of families. Those are available to us because we have a temple. And all of that is just stirring in my heart in a very special way because of this being able to happen in Okinawa, Japan, now.

Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints greets Akira Yafuso and his wife, Kiwako Yafuso, prior to a devotional in Okinawa on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

27:00 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Are you comfortable sharing your testimony of the Savior and of temples in Japanese?

27:05

Elder Gary E. Stevenson: Well, I would love to. You know, it was a part of where I lived for so many years. And as I think about a testimony of Jesus Christ, イエス・キリストは私たちの救い主である事を知っています [I know that Jesus Christ is our Savior]. He is our Savior. 神様は聞いていらっしゃいます [Our Heavenly Father lives]. God lives. 私はイエスがキリストであることを証します [I testify that Jesus is the Christ]. I bear testimony that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. And イエス・キリストの御名によってこれらのことを言います、アーメン [I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen].

27:57

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News executive editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channels or with other news and updates on the Church on TheChurchNews.com.

Related Story
Both lost family in WWII, now former stake presidents in Okinawa share their journey from sorrow to peace — and a temple
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