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

Former leaders in Okinawa, who lost their fathers in World War II, now rejoice that a temple will grace their land

OKINAWA, Japan — As a high school student, Akira Yafuso came out of a bookstore on Okinawa, and ran into two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He didn’t speak English and tried to avoid their gaze. Instead of looking away, however, they addressed him in “very polite Japanese” and invited him to an event that evening at their church.

Yafuso accepted the invitation — even though it was extended by Americans.

He was just 3 years old when his father was killed during World War II. As a little boy, he promised his distraught mother that he would grow up and avenge his father’s death. “I thought they were all my enemies,” he recalled.

Still, to his great surprise, when he met the American missionaries, he knew that there was something different about them, that they were messengers, not enemies. “They were on bikes. They seemed to be very happy. They spoke to everyone,” he recalled.

When he expressed interest in their work, they told him about Joseph Smith’s First Vision. He knew a 14-year-old boy would not tell a lie. “I had a feeling that this message was important,” he said.

Kensei Nagamine and Akira Yafuso in Okinawa, Japan.
Kensei Nagamine and Akira Yafuso in Okinawa, Japan, on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In the coming weeks he visited the missionaries every day after school. “I asked many questions, and I loved the discussions with them.”

He was baptized on a stormy day a month later in January 1959.

Because of the poor weather, the missionaries asked Yafuso to delay his baptism. But he refused. So he entered the sea with three missionaries. One to perform the baptism and two to help them all keep sure footing in the wind and waves.

In 1961 he attended the Church College of Hawaii (now BYU–Hawaii) before accepting a call to serve as a missionary in the Far East Mission of Japan.

He returned from his mission, married Kiwako Tomihara and was asked to serve as a branch president by Kensei Nagamine — then serving as the first Japanese district president in Okinawa.

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‘I felt like I had heard the plan before’

The first missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints landed in Tokyo, Japan, in 1901, according to a short history of the Church in Japan. Almost 45 years later, during World War II, American servicemen became the first Church members to arrive in the Ryukyu Islands in Okinawa.

On July 8, 1945 — just after the Battle of Okinawa ended — those servicemen began meeting regularly for Church meetings and conferences. In 1955, President Joseph Fielding Smith, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited Okinawa and dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel. In April 1956, the first full-time Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Okinawa.

Nagamine met the missionaries in 1957 after he and his friends began attending their English classes.

He soon began attending the Church’s youth activities, then known as MIA, or Mutual Improvement Association.

Kensei Nagamine and Akira Yafuso, pioneer leaders in Okinawa, walk on the Okinawa Japan Temple grounds in Okinawa on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Nagamine never picked up the English language, but he continued meeting regularly with Latter-day Saint youth. He joined the Church choir. Eventually, he took the missionary discussions from sister missionaries.

“When I heard about the plan of salvation from the missionaries I was so touched and moved and felt the Spirit so strong,” he said. “I felt like I had heard the plan before.”

His family — especially his mother — had immediate concerns.

Like Yafuso, Nagamine lost his father, as well as his older brother, in the war. His mother did not know how he could embrace a Church with ties to the United States of America.

On Sunday mornings, family members watched the door to Nagamine’s room in an effort to stop him from going to church. But he climbed out the window.

Despite his family’s objections, Nagamine was baptized in 1958; he was 21. 

Local members of the Church taught him and helped him find employment. He accepted a call to serve in the Naha Branch presidency. Sometimes after branch meetings he drove home a young Latter-day Saint woman. Their marriage was celebrated with a photograph that appeared in the Church’s Liahona magazine.

At the time there was no temple in Japan, so Nagamine and his bride, Hiroko Taira Nagamine, traveled to Hawaii — where they were sealed and also completed temple work for Nagamine’s father and brother.

He served as the first district president and then stake president in Okinawa. Yafuso served as his counselor and then followed him as the second stake president.

In 1988, Nagamine drafted a letter to the First Presidency on behalf of Latter-day Saints in Okinawa. The letter details the “etiquette, music, poetry and dance” of the area and emphasizes the missionary and education goals of the members. “Members in Okinawa have a great desire and hope to have their own temple on the island in the near future,” he wrote, adding “our knowledge of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ fills us with joy and with high hopes for the future.”

Some 35 years later those prayers will be answered — when Elder Gary E. Stevenson dedicates the Okinawa Japan Temple on Sunday, Nov. 12.

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Kensei Nagamine and Akira Yafuso, early Church leaders in Okinawa, talk about the early Church on the island on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A temple for Okinawa

After joining the Church, Yafuso received help from American servicemen to attend the Church College of Hawaii. The servicemen also helped construct meetinghouses in the area.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a late member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and President Boyd K. Packer, a late acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, had been stationed in Okinawa during their service in the United States military in the 1940s. As Apostles of the Lord, they visited Okinawa later in their lives.

Yafuso and Nagamine each recall hearing them testify that Okinawa was a special place.

During one of the occasions in which President Packer returned to Okinawa, he met separately with both leaders. Soon after Nagamine was called to serve as president of the Tokyo Japan Temple and Yafuso as president of the Japan Hiroshima Mission.

The men knew they had come full circle — from the pain caused by war — to the joy and hope and peace found in service in the Church of Jesus Christ and in answering a call from one of the Lord’s Apostles.

Nagamine said over the years he has felt the voice of his ancestors whom he knew have been waiting for a temple in this land.

The Peace Memorial Park in Okinawa is engraved with all the names of those who died on the island in World War II. The memorial does not just include Japanese names, but also the United States service members. Some of the names on the memorial are President Packer’s and Elder Maxwell’s friends. Nagamine’s father and brother and Yafuso’s father are also part of the memorial.

“Some 240,000 people died in Okinawa. I believe and I feel that this land of Okinawa is purified or sanctified by the blood of these ancestors and military personnel,” said Yafuso. “And now it is so great to have a house of the Lord in Okinawa, to have a symbol of peace. We want to be the Lord’s temple-loving people.” 

Kensei Nagamine and Akira Yafuso, pioneer leaders in Okinawa, walk on the Okinawa Japan Temple grounds in Okinawa on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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