Q&A with Shinji Takagi for The Trek East: Mormonism Meets Japan, 1901-1968 October 06 2016

596 pages

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Q. Can you give us a brief background on yourself, both academically and professionally, and what led to your interest in researching this topic?

A. I am an economist by profession. I have been an academic for about 20 years of my professional career and an international civil servant for about 15 years. As an academic, I have also held appointments with Japanese government agencies and consulted for several international organizations. My specialty is international monetary economics. My professional work has involved a number of developed, emerging, and developing economies across the world. At present, I am engaged in work on low-income country cases.

My book discusses the encounter of Mormonism with Japan. Perhaps I should explain how I first encountered America some 45 years ago as a way of introducing my background. When I was growing up in Japan as a child, I had no idea that I would be spending nearly half of my adult life in the United States. Rather accidentally, I received a scholarship to study at an American college toward the end of my senior year in high school. The sponsor was an educational fund called the Grew Foundation, established in 1950 with support from Japan’s leading political and business leaders. It bears the name of a former American ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew, who contributed seed money to the fund. The foundation’s aim was to provide opportunities for American-style liberal arts education to Japanese students who might then become instrumental in rebuilding Japanese–American relations in the postwar era. I would like to think I have made some progress toward this aim by writing this book.

I explain in the preface of the book how I became interested in Japanese Mormon history almost by chance—I was asked to translate an English text on the subject. It was the scholar in me (“curiosity and preoccupation with accuracy”) that kept my interest alive thereafter. It has taken me nearly 25 years of part-time, intermittent work to complete the book! Looking back, I feel I was compelled to write this book.

Q. For readers who are not familiar with the history of LDS missionary work in Japan, can you give us a short summary of activity?

A. Japan was one of the first non-Christian nations to receive Mormon missionaries. LDS missionary work began in 1901 and continued until 1924. Missionaries returned to Japan in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. My book covers not only the periods of Mormon missionary activity in Japan, from 1901 to 1924 and from 1948 to 1968, but also the period when the Church was absent. LDS missionary work is still ongoing, but the book’s coverage ends in 1968 when the mission in Japan was divided into two entities.

Q. What sets The Trek East apart from other books and articles written on the topic of LDS missionary work in Japan?

A. Two things set this book apart from others. First, I do not rely solely on English-language sources. Second, I try to interpret the historical contexts of major events and decisions. These two things, of course, are not independent. Interpretation of historical contexts would be impossible if you were relying on English sources alone. In making these remarks, I am not taking anything away from previous authors. It is their writings that have allowed me to go further.

Q. Early LDS missionary work in Japan is often considered a failure. What do you think contributes to this perspective?

A. A mass conversion of the type experienced, for example, in the British Isles never happened in Japan. That this did not happen may have been a disappointment to some Church leaders, who had hoped that the blood of Israel should make the Japanese people receptive to the Mormon message. Whatever the reason, the Church subsequently did not devote the resources necessary to make a viable presence. The average number of missionaries serving at any one time was about 13 for a country half the population of the United States. I give the subtitle “failure or forfeit?” to the chapter where I discuss these issues. Did the work inherently fail or did it only appear to fail because the Church did not make enough effort? I don’t pretend to give a definitive answer.

Q. Some observers have blamed the disintegration of U.S. and Japan relations for the perceived failure in early LDS missionary work in Japan. What are your thoughts on this?

A. Political events, including international relations, clearly impacted the Mormon experience in the period preceding World War II. I devote a considerable part of the book to discussing how Japanese–American relations may have influenced the Church’s decision to close the mission in 1924. An important point I make is that those who have related the mission’s closing to international politics made their remarks from the vantage point of the postwar era, when the war and the events in Japan that had led up to it were a fait accompli. The war became the convenient explanation for an uncomfortable event in the history of the Church.

Q. What does the history of LDS missionary work in Japan teach us about international missionary work in general?

A. Writing this book has not qualified me to answer this question, except to say that the productivity of LDS missionary work appears to depend on the evolving religious and intellectual climate of a society. The window of opportunity, when there is a radical societal change, is typically short. To take advantage, the Church needs to devote a critical mass of resources quickly. The LDS Church is much better placed to do so today, given the resources now available, than it was in Japan, for example, during the immediate postwar period.

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