Methodist Church

The House of Tsutada

A picture taken in 1960 of the Rev David Tsutada (centre) on a visit to his alma mater, ACS. Others in the picture: his teachers, from left, Mr S. K. Pradhan, Mr Yap Ah Chuan, Dr Thio Chan Bee and the Rev C. B. Paul. – Methodist Church Archives picture, courtesy of Dr Eunice Thio.

Saga of a unique Japanese family of pastors and church workers who started out in Singapore

HE Japanese family name of Tsutada is nearly unique, as uniquely as its family members are pastors and church workers in Japan and overseas. How did this come to pass?

The saga goes back to Singapore early in the last century, when Kenri (“Henry”) Tsutada, an ACS old boy, set up his dental practice at 74 Bras Basah Road, choosing Singapore because of its cosmopolitan population from whom his children could learn.

As early as 1913, he was worshipping at the Japanese Methodist Church which met regularly every Sunday evening at his home, with a dozen or more worshippers. Money was even received for the construction of a Japanese church in Singapore.

A booklet, The House of Tsutada, by Edna Johnson (1988), gives us a graphic account of how the family was brought up, and how virtually all of them dedicated their lives to preaching and spreading the Word in Japan and in foreign countries.

As a strict Christian, Henry Tsutada brought up his family of nine children with daily prayer sessions that sometimes lasted hours when all had to sit perfectly still and not wiggle or shift to a more comfortable position. The boys also studied at ACS, and David Tsugio, the second son, showed early promise when he wrote a thought-provoking article in the Malaysia Message (December 1926) on the meaning of Christmas: a time of new hope when “we can live happily every day, smiling and thankful under any circumstances and then begin our life as a Christian youth who keeps always advancing, encouraged by faith and prayer”.

After spending some time completing high school in Japan, David was sent to England to study law at Cambridge, then London. But, having experienced a call to commit his life to Christ near the completion of his course (at which he was topping the class), he decided that he would give his life to Christ and become a preacher of the Word, instead of being part of the legal profession. Despite his professor’s futile attempt to dissuade him, he went ahead with his plan.

Cabling his father in Singapore: “GOD HAS CALLED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL STOP SHALL I PREACH OR PRACTISE LAW STOP TSUGIO,” he received his father’s prompt reply: “OBEY GOD STOP FATHER.”

David returned to Japan, enrolled at a Bible college and pursued his training with zest – and delight in the Scriptures – offering his services in expounding the Bible to Christian groups nearby. Nearing the end of his training, his college president indicated that it was time he was married, chose Nobuko, a girl from a Christian home, and saw them wed. Their home was simple but adequate for an enthusiastic Christian worker with an equally supportive wife.

At first, Nobuko despaired because she could not play the organ but nonetheless rallied round him, helping him distribute pamphlets inviting people to come to “hear the Gospel! Hear someone tell you how he came to Christ. Hear David Tsutada teach you what the Bible says”. Thereafter, there were many conversions – at first, mainly from the poor and marginalised people who inhabited the city.

A celebrated case was how a “hopeless” drunkard who was rescued from his habit, listened to the counselling, and faithfully attended the daily early morning prayer meetings. He later became a deacon in the Tokyo Central Church until his 80s, while his young son who had accompanied him, became a pastor and Bible school teacher. His other children also entered the ministry, while his sister married a pastor, and her son is a pastor and teacher. The grandchildren prepared themselves to be ministers.

David’s wife, Nobuko, worked hard, inviting people to the services, counselling women and cooking meals for people for Sunday lunch, enabling them to stay the whole day for Bible teaching. While busy with all this work, she had five children: John Makoto, Mary Migiwa, Joshua Tadashi and twin girls, Grace Midorino and Margaret Makiba, their names carefully chosen from Bible verses.

As can be expected, the outbreak of the Pacific War brought fresh and difficult challenges. One was the official requirement that every Christian pastor put up a Japanese flag in front of his church and bow deeply to the Emperor in the direction of the imperial palace. David Tsutada and other pastors refused, “only God in heaven is divine. We worship Him alone”.

Before long, he was arrested, and for two years, some 130 men like David Tsutada and his brother were kept in prison, visited by his wife once a month for just five minutes. His church members were also prohibited from meeting, or having anything to do with Nobuko and her family. Nevertheless, David’s faith was strong, and he assured Nobuko that “God is here. He is my strength. Every day I remember the name of Jesus, ‘Immanuel’, ‘God with us.’” Needless to say, Nobuko and the family had a tough time, sustained only by her deep faith.

Towards the end of the war, David stood trial in a lower court, was pronounced guilty, but was released on probation. Gradually regaining physical health, he visited Hiroshima where the first atomic bomb was dropped, destroying the entire city. Befriending a Hiroshima doctor and a crippled nurse, David and Nobuko decided that they would together build a church in Tokyo on the ashes of war, naming it “Immanuel” because “You, O God, are with us, just as you were in the cell with me.”

Called the Immanuel General Mission from 1945, it grew steadily, sending young men to study for the ministry. In 1955, three were sent to America, including John, David’s eldest son who returned to strengthen its outreach to university students and graduates as well as country farmers. By 1988, this organisation had more than 10,000 members spread all over Japan.

An advertisement taken out by Kenri (Henry) Tsutada which appeared in the June 1931 issue of the ACS Magazine. – Methodist Church Archives picture.

In July 1971, after a long and dedicated life of service, David Tsutada died, and his eldest son, John, took over as President of the Bible Training College (BTC), Pastor of the Tokyo Central Church and the head of the Tsutada family. His eight children went into full-time Christian work as staff members of the Tokyo Central Church, missionaries overseas, one of them in medical work.

Similarly, John’s brothers and sisters actively supported the Mission and together, continued to serve the Lord in Japan and elsewhere. Mary, a fine scholar, enrolled at the BTC, married her brother’s friend Benjamin Saoshiro, but died prematurely, not before her son, Ken, accepted the Lord. Benjamin became pastor, teacher, translator of song and books from English to Japanese and took charge of the missionaries from Immanuel Church.

Joshua, the third sibling, after graduation from Rikkyo University, studied at BTC, then at Yeotmal Union Biblical Seminary in India where, after graduation, he stayed on as registrar and preached during the weekends for a total of 14 years. Returning to Japan he pastored a church in Kyushu, and after his brother John became Chairman of Education, Joshua succeeded him as President of the Bible Training College.

Finally, the twins, Grace and Margaret studied at BTC and alternated pasturing and looking after their mother. After some time, Grace was sent to the Philippines as a missionary, while Margaret did pastoral work not far from Tokyo, and later was sent to begin a church at Beppu, far from Tokyo, in a beautiful but uncertain environment always under God’s loving care. Eventually, her work led her to marrying Benjamin Saoshiro in 1988.

The amazing work continues, and only God in His infinite wisdom and strength will enable it to bear fruit.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.