OKINAWA, Japan — It has been almost eight decades since the final battle of World War II claimed the lives of 240,000 Japanese and U.S. servicemen and Okinawan civilians here in Japan’s southernmost prefecture.
Now, this place, once defined by war and made sacred by the blood that was shed, has a new symbol of peace and unity — the Okinawa Japan Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the Okinawa Japan Temple on Sunday, Nov 12. The temple is the fourth in Japan and the 186th worldwide.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ navigated its way through difficulties, through cultural differences and through language barriers to find itself established on the island of Okinawa,” said Elder Stevenson.
The Okinawa temple district includes 5,500 Latter-day Saints in 12 congregations — members of the Japanese-speaking Okinawa Japan Stake and English-speaking Okinawa Japan Military District who will now worship in a house of the Lord together.
“To have the history that is part of both of those groups come together in a temple … is really quite a remarkable thing,” said Elder Stevenson.
In celebration of both groups, the dedication included two dedicatory sessions — one in English and one in Japanese. “Every member was able to attend a session in the language of their heart,” said Elder Stevenson.
Okinawa’s temple-loving people have been “longing to have a temple for generations,” he added. “And, their thoughts and feelings are even more tender, and really quite deep, because of the history that we have in Okinawa.”
In the 12,437-square-foot temple, Okinawan Latter-day Saints will honor their ancestors — “many who faced an untimely death associated with war.”
The temple, he said, “can bring peace and comfort and unity of heart and mind and respect and devotion to our departed ancestors.”
A temple-going people
A land of deep spirituality and ancestral connection, Japan is a temple-going society with “some of the most active temple-going, temple-attending, temple-worshipping Latter-day Saints in the whole world,” said Elder Stevenson. Before the Tokyo Japan Temple was dedicated in 1980, pioneering Latter-day Saints chartered airplanes to travel to the Laie Hawaii Temple, he said.
Kensei and Hiroko Taira Nagamine participated in those early temple trips — first being sealed in the Laie temple and then doing work for Kensei Nagamine’s father and brother, who died in Okinawa during World War II.
The first Japanese district president and then stake president in Okinawa, Nagamine said over the years he has felt the voice of his ancestors, whom he knows have been waiting for a temple in this land.
Akira Yafuso, also an early stake president in Okinawa, spoke of the 240,000 people who 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,” he said. “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.”
In the days before the dedication of the new temple, Tomihara Sadako, 101, walked the temple grounds with her daughters, Sachie Arakaki and Atsuko Asato.
In 1961, Arakaki, then 12, was invited by a neighbor to a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse; she was baptized in the ocean and shared the gospel with her sisters.
When Sadako learned The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could connect her to her ancestors through proxy ordinances in the temple, she followed her daughters into the waters of baptism on March 27, 1976. Just before her baptism, she attended the world expo in Osaka, Japan, and watched the Church-produced movie “Man’s Search for Happiness.” After she had seen the movie twice, she knew she had found a true church.
When President Russell M. Nelson announced the Okinawa temple on April 7, 2019, she began visiting the temple grounds. When she saw the words, “Holiness to the Lord,” she knew those words were a mark of peace in a land that had been defined by war.
“I prayed to live to the day of dedication,” Sadako said. “My dream came true. I am so happy.”
Yoshitaka Asato’s mother was an early convert to the Church in Japan. In his youth, Asato “always felt like he needed to go to church, but didn’t.”
Then he tragically lost a friend and opened the Book of Mormon. He read all day and through the night. “I felt the Spirit so strongly, I was unable to hold my tears,” he said. He was baptized June 17, 1978.
With his wife, Atsuko Asato, Yoshitaka Asato led the Okinawa Japan Temple open house and dedication committee. During the open house, nearly 8,000 people toured the sacred building. While the Japanese stake and the military district have shared buildings and worked together for many years, the open house provided them the opportunity to “become better friends and have better relationships,” Yoshitaka Asato said. “We had Japanese and American members in each and every subcommittee. We worked hard, and we worked together, and we were united.”
The colorful windows of the Okinawa Japan Temple reflect Ryukyu bingata — an ancient stenciled dyeing technique with Okinawan roots.
Traditionally the art, which dates back to the 14th century, blends the natural dyes found on the Ryukyu Islands here with pigments imported from other lands, creating fabrics and garments once reserved for royalty.
The bingata in the Okinawa temple includes three panes of painted glass — each pane painted with a different design.
Layered together the window creates a vibrant, beautiful design.
Bingata, which was almost destroyed during World War II, can also be representative of the Latter-day Saint community here, in which the Japanese-speaking stake and English-speaking district, once divided by war, layer together to create something beautiful.
Okinawa Military District President Mark Francis said there are two diverse and different cultures here in Okinawa, which are bridged by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
His wife, Nettie Francis, who served on the local temple dedication committee, said Okinawa paints an “unique image of how the gospel can bring people together in peace.”
“The whole history of the Church in Okinawa has been this blending of the American military and the Japanese citizens,” she said. “The temple is a symbol of peace and a symbol of healing for both sides — the Americans and the Japanese.”
While the first missionaries arrived in Tokyo in 1901, the Church didn’t have a presence in Okinawa and the surrounding Ryukyu Islands until the 1940s, when World War II brought American servicemen in 1945.
“The first Church members here were actually the American servicemen who landed in this foreign place in a time of war, and felt very distraught and far from home and homesick,” Nettie Francis said. Just seven days after the fighting ended, they held a large Church service with 180 soldiers attending.
American Latter-day Saints today feel some of the same feelings the original soldiers felt. “We get homesick, we are far from home, we wish we could have our family members close,” she said. “We are eating foreign foods and longing for anything that’s familiar. But having the temple here will give us that little piece of home that we long for.”
President Francis said he continues to draw strength from the Japanese members’ commitment to the gospel. “They give up so much, and once they embrace the gospel they are so committed,” he said.
‘A tender time’
In 1974, Elder Stevenson was called as a young missionary to the Japan Fukuoka Mission. He returned with his family, when he and Sister Stevenson were called as leaders of the Japan Nagoya Mission, and then when he was assigned to serve in Asia North Area presidency, which is headquartered in Tokyo. “It’s a home for us,” he said of the nation.
Hajime Miyara served under Elder Stevenson in the Nagoya mission. In a final interview, Elder Stevenson promised Miyara that one day he would be a leader in Okinawa. Today he is the president of the Okinawa Japan Stake.
As he pondered the assignment to return again to Japan and dedicate the temple, Elder Stevenson said his thoughts turned to “all of the elements that have been part of the lives of the people of Okinawa” — to the “hardships they faced,” and the effect the “ravages of 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.”
Holiness to the Lord, he said, demands “kindness, unity, love, 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 here. And not only is it for us who are living; it is also for our deceased ancestors — some of whom were right in the midst of those horrific things that took place.”
Elder Stevenson testified that the temple will bring redemption as priesthood keys open the door for the sealing of families.
“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 restored Church of Jesus Christ in Okinawa.”
Okinawa Japan Temple
Location: Okinawa-ken, Okinawa-shi Matsumoto 7-11-32, 904-2151 Japan
Announced: April 7, 2019, by President Russell M. Nelson
Groundbreaking: Dec. 5, 2020, presided over by Elder Takashi Wada, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Asia North Area
Construction start: Feb. 16, 2021
Public open house: Saturday, Sept. 23, through Saturday, Oct. 7, excluding Sundays
Dedication: Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, by Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in two sessions
Property size: 0.55 acres
Building size: 12,437 square feet (1,155.43 square meters)
Building height: 105 feet, including spire