Hans Bouwman, Japan - 5 - By Freighter to Japan

By Freighter to Japan
After a train journey through Germany and Switzerland I arrived at Genoa where I met my German friend Johannes, who was also going out as a missionary to Japan. On the Dutch freighter Abbekerk there was accommodation for only 12 passengers. I shared a nice cabin with Johannes, and we enjoyed our sea journey very much. On its 45-day journey the ship called at places like Port Said in Egypt, Djibouti in Africa, Bombay in India, Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Penang and Port Swattenham in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manilla and even Shanghai in Red China. Wherever possible, we contacted missionaries or native Christians and experienced refreshing times of fellowship. The stopover in Communist China was for only three days, and soldiers of the Red Guard, who took temporary control of the ship, spoke to us a lot about the good things of ‘New China’. We tried to draw their attention to the necessity of the new birth in order to enter the Kingdom of God, but as atheists they did not have an open ear for this kind of’opium’ of the people.

freighter ride to japan

A 45-day journey by cargo-ship to Japan.

Nature’s Wonders and Power
We were overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s creation. While steaming through the Red Sea we got a glimpse of Mount Sinai, so we sat down together and read the corresponding chapters in the Bible where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. In the Indian Ocean we were amazed to see the glowing phosphor fields in the water and also the flying fish and various other spectacular and impressive sights of nature. We had never seen a night sky so bright, so large, so beautiful, and as we glanced at the expanse of stars and planets while sailing over the oceans in Asia, we were struck with the magnitude of it all. “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who has created these things, who bringeth out their host by number, He calleth them all by names by the greatness of His might; for He is strong in power” (Isa.40:26).

As the ship sailed along we were not only impressed by the beauty of nature, but also by its power. As we approached Japan our ship was caught in a violent tropical storm which had started during the night. We woke out of our sleep, as the ship was being tossed like a match box on the huge waves. During the whole journey I had not felt seasick, but now my stomach was churning. In the morning we went as usual to the dining room on the upper deck, but we could not believe our eyes at the sight of all the damage. The securely anchored chairs and tables had all broken loose and all the chinaware had been dashed to pieces on the floor. Coming into the lounge we saw that lamps and pieces of furniture had also been thrown around and badly damaged. Breakfast could not be served that morning, which was probably the best for upset stomachs. Since we could hardly walk we went back to our cabin, and while we lay on our beds the ship suddenly began to pitch violently from one side to the other to such an extent that, if we hadn’t held on to the bed railings, we would have been thrown to the floor. The captain proceeded to make an announcement over the PA system that the ship had to change course in order to start a rescue operation. It was because of turning that the ship had become about broadside into the waves and been hurled about by the wild sea. The captain asked the passengers to go on deck and assist in the rescue operation. We put on our jackets and wrestled our way up to the ever shifting deck. When we looked over the railing we were shocked to see a small fishing vessel nearly submerged by the power of the typhoon. Part of the cabin was still above water, with six men holding on to it and another man clinging to the mast.

Our ship manoeuvred itself into position so that the fishing vessel would drift towards it. A huge wave suddenly smashed the little boat against the iron hull of the 10,000 ton freighter and it instantly splintered into thousands of pieces. There was literally nothing left that even looked like a boat! Before the submerged vessel was smashed against our freighter, the fishermen had to exercise split-second judgment to let go and dive off into the sea. The man clinging to the mast did not jump off in time and was instantly killed, but the others jumped clear safely and then began the struggle to keep themselves afloat.

A 45-day journey by cargo-ship to Japan
We were instructed to throw out all life buoys from the deck. Several of the men managed to grab one. The sailors of our ship pulled the first fisherman up and managed to get him on board and there was a sigh of relief. But there were still five to be rescued. The sailors were able to pull up another two, but the battle had become more difficult. Three fishermen were safe on deck, but the fate of the others still fighting the tremendous waves hung in the balance. We were so happy when two more managed to get on deck. Now there was only one fisherman left in the churning sea and the sailors did what they could to rescue him. One sailor even went down on a rope ladder, but was called back by the captain as the risk was extreme. Several times the remaining fisherman grasped a tethered preserver, but when he would be pulled halfway up to the deck, he would fall back into the rough sea because he had become too weak to hold on. At last the man was completely exhausted and we could see his desperation. It was not long before we helplessly watched as with his eyes wide open in terror and his arms outstretched he sank into the inky depths of the wild sea.
After an event like this, you can’t help but think about eternity. The Bible clearly points to an eternal state after we
take our last breath. What about the two lost fishermen? Each Christian has a debt towards his fellowman to be a witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of the language barrier we could not convey even one word to the rescued Japanese fishermen. Yet, it was my first contact with Japanese people, and I was sure of the Lord’s call just to be there for those in need of salvation.

As opportunities presented themselves throughout the sea voyage we held informal meetings on the crew deck. Johannes and I sang together with the guitar. There were always some sailors who came and listened to our testimonies. We also visited the sailors in their cabins to speak about eternal things. After the tragedy with the Japanese fishermen, the rough sailors paid much more attention to our words, and the tracts we distributed were eagerly read.
“It is better to go to the house of mourning, than go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart” (Eccl.7:2).

Entry into Japan
Finally the coastline of Japan came into view, the first port of call being Kobe. The freighter stopped there for four days and this gave us ample time to be with the missionaries and the Japanese Christians. The last part of our sea voyage was just one day from one Japanese port to another. When we reached our final destination of Yokohama, we were welcomed by some of the missionaries. That same evening we attended a missionary prayer meeting, where about thirty missionaries had come together for prayer. We were warmly welcomed to join their ranks in reaching souls for Christ.
The next day we left Tokyo for Karuizawa, a small town in the mountains of central Japan. It had been arranged for me to live there with three missionaries from Germany who were involved in language study. It was a bachelors’ household and we took turns in putting a meal on the table. One of my friends sometimes took it very easy and ‘prepared’ a meal which consisted of peanuts and apples, because this needed no cooking. The pans we used were also very simply made. I remember entering the room with a nicely prepared meal of hot porridge for our breakfast, when suddenly the handle came off and the porridge spilt all over the floor. After this I thought it would be better to follow the example of my friend and that morning our meal consisted of peanuts and apples.

I was thankful for meeting my missionary-friends, they encouraged me to get a good start in learning the language. Their advice was forwarded like this: “For the time being, forget about being a missionary. See yourself as a student eager to learn a most difficult language”. The first missionaries we had met in Kobe were Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hay, originally from England, but later commended from Canadian assemblies, and Mr. and Mrs. Albert Dexter from England. The Hays, commended in 1930, had been missionaries in Japan and Formosa (Taiwan) before the war. The Lord had used them in different areas to open up assembly work but they had first of all settled in Kobe while learning Japanese. The Dexters were originally commended to the Lord’s work in China. After China was overrun by the Communists in 1948 the missionaries were expelled. Quite a number of these missionaries found a new field of labour in Japan, among them also the Lowers, the Bishops and Miss Brixton, all from England, and the Beckons from the United States. The Dexters came to Japan in 1951 and laboured for many years in the Kobe area. Among the Japanese Christians in the assembly there was an outstanding brother by the name of Dr. Ishihama, who was a dentist and spoke English fluently. I recall the wonderful times of fellowship with this brother, who showed a zealous dedication in his life to the Lord. During the war Dr. Ishihama was imprisoned for preaching at an open-air meeting against the ‘Sun Goddess’, the chief deity of Shintoism. It was a most dangerous time for the testimony of the three existing assemblies in Tokyo, Kobe and Osaka. Spies were planted in the meetings, the leading brethren were arrested, and several of them spent all of the war years in prison until Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945.
Another pre-war missionary was Mr. RJ. Wright from Northern Ireland, who came to Japan in 1931. By the outbreak of the war he was interned at Yokohama. Fortunately, a year later he was repatriated in a prisoner exchange program. Another missionary from Northern Ireland, Mr. John Hewitt, who had come to Japan in 1938 was put in a concentration camp, where he died in 1942 because of ill-treatment. His death was the only war-time martyrdom recorded among missionaries in
Japan. When Mr. R.J. Wright was released from prison and left Yokohama by ship, he carried an urn containing the ashes of John Hewitt and John’s Bible with him back to Ireland.

In recent years I have been at his graveside at Kilmore and I have thanked the Lord for His servant who was faithful unto death. On his gravestone the words are written:

John Alexander Hewitt
Missionary, who died in Japan 7th April 1942
And his ashes are interred here

During the war there existed a rude military Shinto regime, under which the testimony of the few assemblies was virtually broken up. After the war these assemblies were soon re¬established and since 1948 there has been an influx of missionaries with the result that many more assemblies were started.
My Fiancee’s Arrival and Our Wedding
My fiancee, Gerda, left Holland about one year later. The voyage lasted 55 days and since she was susceptible to seasickness, she had many a rough day. Gerda was to disembark in the port of Kobe where I met her. I had travelled to Kobe already two weeks ahead of time, not only to be in time to meet my bride-to-be, but also to help in on-going tent meetings. These meetings were held at a good location in the city, and every night a good number of unsaved heard the Gospel. I could not yet preach in Japanese, but was very happy to help in invitation work. At that time, tent meetings were still quite popular, and it was an effective method to invite people to listen to the Gospel. In later years, when Japan became a more prosperous country, tent meetings became less attractive, and today it is better to conduct meetings in more comfortable air-conditioned halls. When at last the day of Gerda’s arrival came, Mr. and Mrs. Hay joined me to welcome her. It was thrilling to watch the big ship steam into the harbour, and as soon as I saw Gerda standing on deck, I began to snap pictures with my camera. After the ship docked I was one of the first to go on board in order to meet my sweetheart. Mr. and

Mrs. Hay
followed a short time after with great courtesy and consideration. After our brief initial meeting, I took even more pictures of my beautiful girl. By then it dawned on me that I must have taken at least 50 pictures on a film of supposedly 36.1 checked the camera and discovered that it had no film in it. Excitement can do that to you!
Soon we left for Tokyo, and from there continued our journey to Takasaki, since that was the place where Gerda would live to make a start in the Japanese language. How good to receive help and hospitality from other missionaries. First Gerda enjoyed hospitality from a German couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stoecker, and then from Mr. and Mrs. Leonard and Agnes Mullan from Northern Ireland. The Mullans have always meant a lot to us, as they were missionaries not only to the Japanese, but in many ways also to other missionaries. While they were in Japan from 1952 till 1987, the Lord granted much blessing upon their labours for Him. Gerda and I lived about 80 miles (120 km.) apart and since we both were fully occupied with our studies, we met each other only twice a month. For the sake of the Lord’s work, we felt that our priority should not be personal matters.

On one occasion I was on my way to Takasaki by train. It was already quite late, but it seemed that I would make it to the Mullan’s house by around eleven o’clock in the evening. I was probably thinking too much about Gerda and in my excitement I got off one station too early, and there I was standing in the cold and windy weather, waiting another two hours for the next train. I was really embarrassed to arrive so late, but the Mullans showed pity on me and let me in.
Our wedding day was in May 1957. It was a simple but joyful wedding in the presence of many guests, missionaries from all over Japan and Japanese Christians. We were helped by some of the missionaries to arrange the details for our wedding. Goodies were baked, the wedding hall was decorated, and many more things were accomplished to make it an unforgettable day for us. Although far from all our relatives in Holland, we felt the impact of the words of the Lord Jesus more than ever: “So likewise, whosoever he is of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The Lord united us in marriage for the great purpose of serving Him together and we raised our voices of thanksgiving to Him!