Ecumenical News International

Tetsuo Nakajima was once a powerful leader in Japan's yakuza, the country's organised crime syndicates. But now the former gangster is a pastor who tells his compatriots that anyone can kick a life of overindulgence and turn over a new leaf. 

"What matters in life is who you meet and what to believe in to live," said the Nakajima, the pastor of NAOS International Christ Church, an evangelical denomination, in Tokyo speaking to a group of mainly young people in the Japanese capital. 

"We were risking our lives for money and doing anything but murder," recalls former yakuza leader Tetsuo Nakajima. "But my heart was always insecure and scared."

He started going to church in 1988 for his marriage to a Korean Christian woman and later turned to Jesus. Ten years later, he was invited with another ex-yakuza pastor, the Rev Keisuke Suzuki, to the National Prayer Breakfast with then US president, Bill Clinton. 

Born on the most northerly large Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1950, Nakajima wanted to become a member of the infamous yakuza in his junior high school days, after watching Japanese gangster films. When he was 19-years-old, he joined the Tokyo-based Sumiyoshi-kai, one of the largest yakuza organizations in Japan. Through his activities and his deft manipulation of dealings with political and business leaders, he became a billionaire. 

In 1985, he assumed second rank in the powerful Sumiyoshi-kai and then formed his own yakuza group. Alongside his criminal activities, he spent much time, he says, indulging in drinking and womanising and taking drugs. 

"We were risking our lives for money and doing anything but murder," he said, recalling his yakuza decades. "But my heart was always insecure and scared." He added, "Then my wife prayed that I quit yakuza, leave other women alone, stop taking drugs, and that we could have a child." 

In 1990, Nakajima tried to murder a fellow yakuza member while he was under the influence of drugs, because the gang leader believed he had been betrayed by a peer who won over a woman with whom he had a relationship. He relates it was also at around that time that he experienced what he believes was God's work for his repentance. 

"When I was alone in my house trying to inject drugs into my arm, I felt as if someone vigorously punched me in my face," said Nakajima. 

In his 2001 biography entitled, A Born-Again Christian, which was published in Japan by the Kodansha publishing house in Tokyo, Nakajima writes that he was "seized by visions" of his past wrongdoings like flashbacks. It occurred during his days at a prayer centre in the mountainous northern Japanese area of Fukushima. 

Then, he received a phone call that he had been expelled from Sumiyoshi-kai due to the attempted killing. Even the gangsters could not take such indiscipline and he had lost his job. 

In 1995, Nakajima joined an evangelical group of ex-yakuza Christians called the Mission Barabas. 

The life stories of its then-eight members were published in a 1998 Japanese book that Nakajima co-authored, Tatoo Christians, from Waseda Publishing Co. in Tokyo. In 2001, the book was made into a joint Korea-Japan film called,Jesus Is My Boss

After the film was made, some members left the group, but more former gangsters joined it. The Rev Yasuhiro Kanazawa, a third-generation Korean born in Japan, who is an ex-yakuza pastor, now heads the Japan World Mission based in Osaka. 

"Now we want to hold evangelical gatherings for those who feel hopeless and who are suffering," Nakajima said. "I also pray for some intercession for those who live in North Korea and Africa."