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Tsune Ishida Nachie: Preaching the Gospel, Redeeming the Dead

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 20, 2008

It isn’t clear why Tsune Nachie accepted employment in the LDS mission home in Tokyo. The 49-year-old widow, a convert to the Church of England for some 20 years, had long experience working for Europeans and commanded a larger salary than the Mormons could offer her. Yet in the summer of 1905, she became the cook and housekeeper for the elders who had been laboring in Japan since Heber J. Grant had opened the mission in 1901. After four years, they had baptized only seven converts, few of whom remained long with the church. But they had established a successful Sunday School for children in the neighborhood, and one of them – Elder Alma O. Taylor – was slowly translating the Book of Mormon, and they hoped the work would pick up its pace.

Tsune Nachie was born at Komasawa, near Tokyo, on the 6th of April, 1856, one of eight children of Tokuzo Ando and Cho Ishida. She never had the opportunity to go to school, but learned the rudiments of reading and writing from a Buddhist priest. At age 23 she married Sataro Nachie, who died in 1888. Tsune had no children, although she was raising her niece Ei Asano when she came to the mission home; the elders assumed Ei was her daughter, and she never told them otherwise.

Tsune began her employment at the mission home in mid-July, 1905. Only a month later, Elder Taylor recorded in his diary: “Elder Caine had a conversation with our cook, Mrs. Nachie, who said she is convinced that the Latter-day Saints have the truth as taught anciently and that although she has been a member of the Church of England for many years, yet she has heard during her short sojourn with us so many things that ha[ve] given her new light.” Unwilling to rush toward baptism with the poor record of converts during the previous few years, the elders wanted “to test her sincerity a little more and teach her further about the Church & its laws.”

She was an earnest investigator. Day after day, the elder recorded, “I talked with Mrs. Nachie about the 1st Article of our Faith until ten o’clock and then we sang a hymn together”; “I spent the evening instructing Mr[s]. Nachie more fully in the peculiar features of ‘Mormonism’”; “I then talked with Mrs. Nachie and one of her friends about the gospel.”

On September 18, Tsune called on her old preacher and left a message with his wife that “investigation had led her to believe in the teachings of Mormonism,” and she intended to be baptized. Then she went to the elders and told them – didn’t ask, but told them – that she was ready to be baptized. Elder Taylor recorded on September 26:

“At about four o’clock we left headquarters to go to the place of baptism. Elder Woodland came from where he is living to witness the ordinance. Sister Tsuta Degushi was in the party; also a lady friend of Mrs. Nachie. We went on the electric car from Sendagoya station to Shinjuku and then walked to the stream which runs in the rear of the water works near a little resort called Juniso. We were allowed to pass through a private garden to the bank of the stream and were not disturbed or looked at during the service. We sang ‘Lo on the Water’s Brink we Stand.’ I offered a short prayer. Then Elder Fred A. Caine led Mrs. Nachie into the water and baptized her. As soon as they had put on dry clothes we returned to headquarters.”

The following Sunday, October 1, “At our fast meeting which convened from 11:30 a.m. we enjoyed a good spirit. Sister Nachie Tsune was confirmed a member of the church and given the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.”

Elder Taylor’s diaries are our chief source of information for Tsune’s early life in the Church. They show her to be a completely involved member, who participated in meetings, discussed principles of the gospel with the elders, served faithfully as an employee (even chasing a midnight intruder out of the house), and working with the few women converts in a sort of proto-Relief Society. She appears most commonly in the record, though, as a missionary – time after time, she invites women friends to stay with her for days at a time, arranging for them to be taught by the missionaries during their visits. At least one such houseguest joined the Church:

“November 1st 1907 … In company with all the elders in Tokyo and Sisters Haku and Nachie and the latter’s little girl Ei and Mrs. Tai went to Tamagawa to witness and direct a baptismal service, by which Mrs. Tai was added to the fold of Christ. This is our only baptism thus far this year. The weather being ideal, the water clear and the spot quiet and secluded all hearts rejoiced in the privilege of being present. Mrs. Fude Tai is Sister Tsune Nachie’s younger sister and has been a believer of the Episcopal church for a long time … her father-in-law with whom she lived after her husband’s death is the [Episcopal] preacher at Kawagoe.”

Only once is there a record of any trouble between Tsune and her new brethren in the gospel:

“After class I had a talk with Sister Nachie about her work, calling her attention to some of her unclean ways. This made her rebel and she wanted to quit but I had a talk with her which perhaps will do her some good.”

The nature of Tsune’s “unclean ways” – or rather, Elder Taylor’s misinterpretation of Japanese culture – is suggested in a closely following entry:

“At 11:00 a.m. we held Sacrament meeting. Sisters Nachie and Haku were present. I talked for their benefit upon the evils of the custom among low class Japanese of going naked or nearly so during the hot weather. I told them that it was their duty to respect their persons by keeping them covered in the presence of others and avoid associating with people who didn’t have enough decency to cover up their ugly nakedness.”

But with that exception, there is every sign that Tsune took motherly care of the elders, who in turn displayed great affection and care for her. Tsune often needed medical care for her eyes, and one year the elders paid for another examination and presented her with a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses as a Christmas gift. They also paid to send Tsune’s niece Ei (whom they thought was her daughter) to school.

Tsune worked as the elders’ cook and housekeeper for 18 years. Finally, in 1923 and approaching 70 years of age, the elders decided that she was too elderly to continue such steady labor. They would not abandon her, however; the elders then in the mission home wrote letters to every former Japanese missionary they could locate, explaining that their beloved Tsune Nachie needed to retire. It is a testimony to Tsune and the affection she had created among the missionaries that they responded with contributions large enough for Tsune to emigrate to Hawaii, to live where she could work in the temple. The timing was fortunate: Tsune avoided the earthquake that devastated Tokyo later in 1923, and she was safely settled in the mission home at Laie when the Japanese Mission was closed in 1924, which would have left her without a home and without employment.

Tsune hardly settled into a life of quiet retirement in Hawaii. She was the first Japanese convert to enter the temple, and at an unknown date she returned for a brief visit to Japan to collect the genealogical records of other converts’ families so that she could take care of their ordinance work. Without direction – impelled only by her testimony and her desire to share the gospel, this little woman – less than five feet tall – left her small Hawaiian home on a near daily basis to go proselyting among the Japanese of Hawaii, whom no one else was teaching. Church members tried to persuade her to move to Honolulu where there were members who could take care of her, but she insisted on remaining at Laie where she could go to the temple regularly and attend to her private mission among the Japanese.

In April 1934, a small group of converts organized the first Japanese branch of the Church in Hawaii, and to Tsune’s great joy, she lived to see the 1937 organization of a fully functioning Japanese Mission in Hawaii. Tsune was credited then as “a powerful influence in bringing about that organization” — one that would soon nurture converts with names like Adney Y. Komatsu and Chieko Okazaki. She died in December 1939, at age 83, after 34 years as a missionary.
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Photos, top to bottom:
Tsune Nachie, ca. 1938
Christmas 1920, Tokyo (with visiting apostle David O. McKay)
Tsune Nachie with Japanese Sunday School, in Hawaii, 1937
Tsune Nachie with Elder and Sister Anthony Ivins, in Hawaii
Tsune Nachie’s grave, [Honolulu?] Hawaii
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Added 9 August 2008: This picture of Tokyo converts dated 1910 shows Tsune seated third from the left:

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15 Comments »

  1. Thank you for a wonderful and moving tribute.

    I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ passage — I believe in The Great Divorce — about a triumphal assembly welcoming one of the ‘mighty and great’ souls into heaven, who turns out to be a woman who lived in some obscurity, even in her own neighborhood, but whose love towards others touched the lives of many, many people. (If I weren’t sitting in an airport, I’d go look it up.)

    It sounds a lot like Sis. Nachie. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — July 20, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  2. Beautiful story.

    Comment by Researcher — July 20, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  3. I served my mission in Japan. Thank you, Ardis, for this wonderful story. Surely there is a special place in the mansions of the Father for common, extraordinary people like Nachie Shimai.

    Comment by Ray — July 20, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

  4. Thank you for this beautiful story. I recently discovered online versions of the Japanese Ensign (“Seito no Michi”, etc.) going back to the 1950s, which is a treasure trove of pictures and stories of the later Japanese pioneers.

    Comment by DCL — July 20, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  5. Thank you, all.

    I could find tiny traces of Tsune’s story in many places, but nowhere told as a coherent story. If any of you with Japanese skills and access to Japanese materials, like your “Seito no Michi” mags, DCL, I would be grateful for you to keep her in mind and send me anything that would help to correct or expand this sketch.

    I liked the photo of the Saints gathered around her gravestone, with the marker seeming to be her still standing in their midst. It would be good to know that she was still remembered in that part of the world.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 20, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

  6. Another former Japan missionary says Domo arigato gozaimasu!

    A great post, a touching story.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 21, 2008 @ 9:09 am

  7. I trust that you’ve seen Taking the Gospel to the Japanese, 1901–2001, eds. Reid Nielson and Van C. Gessel (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2005).

    I think I’ve seen only the outside of it, in my brother’s library, but I didn’t open it.

    Trying to catch up to DCL, I’ve done some googling for “Seito no Michi” but have yet to find it. I did find a brief history of the Relief Society in Japan from 1951 to 1991, written by Yanagida Toshiko. The highlight of the article: a photograph of Relief Society leaders including Fumie Swenson, who has got to be the mother of Raymond Takashi Swenson.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 21, 2008 @ 9:29 am

  8. Mark B., I was searching for the Liahona (in katakana) and ended up at the church’s Japanese site with current issues. A link on the sidebar goes to back issues, which stretch back to the early 1950s. I don’t think they are searchable, though. The old issues are fascinating – each of the handful of branches writes in a report and there is a list of baptisms and priesthood ordinations by branch. There is even the English class lesson for the month in the back.

    Comment by DCL — July 21, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  9. Ardis, thank you for putting together this wonderful account of one of the few early members in Japan who stayed faithful. It was a remarkable thing for the elders to find someone in those days who was really converted.

    I believe a few of the others include Sister Yanagida’s family, as well as a Sister Kumagai in Sapporo, who was still alive when I was on my mission there in 1970 and a missionary couple, the Christensens, who had served there in the 1920s came from Hawaii unexpectedly for a visit and found her there. The planned program for Sacrament Meeting was scrapped and the three of them bore their testimonies and spoke of their experiences. The Christensens then took Sister Kumagai, eight or so missionaries (including the mission office staff) and several other members out to dinner. All of those early members have special stories, especially of how they coped during the over 20 years after the mission was closed in 1924 (in the wake of the US passing the anti-Japanese law prohibiting further Japanese immigration, which was only repealed just before my Mother and I–yes the one in the Nagoya Relief Society photo–came to America), including the war years and the post-war Occupation, when military Mormons restarted missionary work in Japan.

    The timing of this is coincident to the 88th Birthday of Tomi Sato. Sister Sato was the second wife and now widow of Tatsui Sato, a chemical engineering professor who was converted by LDS servicemen in the early days of the Occupation. When he was baptized, an American fighter pilot who baptized his first wife was named Boyd K. Packer. Later when their son Yasuo was baptized, my father was a participant. When my dad was called as a missionary, he held Sunday School in Brother Sato’s house.

    Brother Sato was fluent in English and was for many years the Church’s principal translator, updating Alma O. Taylor’s Book of Mormon and adding the D&C and Pearl of Great Price, as well as A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and Jesus the Christ, and various lesson manuals. He probably translated Improvement Era articles for the Seito no Michi. In the mid-1960s, he was sent to the Hawaii Temple and translated the temple ordinances into Japanese in preparation for the first temple excursion from Japan.

    A few years later, after his first wife died, he immigrated to Salt Lake, where he was translating genealogical sources, and where he joined the local Japanese-language branch of the Church, now the Dai-Ichi (First) Ward and met Tomi there, where she was doing simultaneous translation between English and Japanese during Sacrament Meeting. They were among the first ordinance workers at the new Tokyo Temple in 1980, and we visited them at their home when I was there with the Air Force. Elder Packer spoke at Brother Sato’s funeral about ten years ago, and he came to Sister Sato’s birthday party Saturday, July 19. And both my parents came.

    Sister Sato’s daughter Michi was a missionary in Osaka and taught my grandfather’s cousin, whom we call “Aunt Okumura”. She married Doug Matsumori, an attorney in Salt Lake, and he served as bishop of the Dai-Ichi Ward and as a mission president in Japan in the early 1990s.

    I recall that Tomi is from Hawaii, born in 1920, and may have been one of the people whose lives were touched by Sister Nachie.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — July 21, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

  10. Wow, Ardis. I love this. That’s all. What a wonderful story.

    Comment by Emily M. — July 21, 2008 @ 9:44 pm

  11. Thank you, Mark and DCL and Raymond and Emily, and anyone else who took time to read this post. I don’t know how well Sister Nachie is remembered among the Japanese Saints, although Raymond has privately given me some ideas for research in Japanese materials.

    Whether or not she is remembered at home, she is representative of all the Pioneers we might be remembering this week and I’m glad to have stumbled across her story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 21, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

  12. How wonderful to hear of this stalwart Japanese pioneer! Also, how wonderful to see places where I served in the 1980′s mentioned in her record. God bless Nachie Shimai.

    I believe I worked in one area with where a senior ward member was a Yanagida. I can’t remember what her married name was but she had wonderful stories to share of those early days in the church. My favorite was how, back during the “withdrawn era”, the Saints weren’t allowed to meet, proselyte, or perform ordinances — sacrament included. Her fiance had studied the gospel in her home and wanted to be baptized but couldn’t with the restrictions in place. They decided to postpone marriage until everything was restored and he could be baptized.

    I understand this sister and her family were heavily involved in creating/translating the post-war Japanese hymnbook.

    I haven’t thought about her in 20 years. Thanks AEP!

    Comment by Chad Too — July 23, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  13. A letter from Elbert D. Thomas to Hilton A. Robertson, both mission presidents (past, and then-current) to Japan, on 29 December 1938, concerning the news of Tsune Nachie’s death:

    “She was a fine lady,and the work that she has done will go on for a long, long time. … Probably there are few women in the Church who live away from Zion who have met so many of our leaders and have been able to impress themselves upon them because they all knew who was meant when we asked about Natchie-san.Her spirit will always be a blessing in our lives.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 2, 2013 @ 11:04 am

  14. Another great article. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Steve — January 5, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

  15. Steve’s comment led me back to this post, and I enjoyed reading it again after all these years! I noted your question mark about Sister Nachie’s burial place, and was able to answer the question with the help of billiongraves.com. Here’s the entry, showing that she was buried in the Laie Community Cemetery.

    Given your comment about her reluctance to move from Laie during her years living in Hawaii, it seems fitting that she was laid to rest there.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 6, 2014 @ 6:11 am

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