Hiroyuki Suzuki’s shoulders and upper arms are alive with colorful tattoo images of carp and monsters. His pinkies have both been trimmed at the first knuckle. All are sure signs of a Japanese gangster, a distinction he most definitely had for 17 years of his early life. But all things are possible with God – even for mobsters; today he’s born-again and a reverend, leading a congregation at the Siloam Christ Church in Funabashi, just east of Tokyo.
“My tattoos and missing pinkies are my handicap,” “I always tried to hide that fact. However, I stopped hiding it after I became Christian. [Before] I led a life of lies. But after I met Jesus and came to know the Lord, I wanted to live with my true self.” His “life of lies” included drugs, gambling, and general debauchery as a member of the Sakaume yakuza crime group in Osaka. Now he uses his past as the ultimate icebreaker, bringing people of all walks of life to fill the roughly 100 foldable seats in his church. Here, they find a smiling man of confidence, a sharply dressed example of a life that has made a turn for the better.
In a society known for its conformity and reluctance to discuss problems openly, Suzuki is using the intrigue of his change from a gangster toting guns to a Christian holding a Bible as an introduction to the teachings of Jesus. The Siloam Church is modest, yet cozy. It sits at the end of a little-traveled street inside a trailer of vinyl tile flooring. Peering through the colored stained-glass windows on either side of the shiny gold cross mounted on the back wall reveals the painted name of the company occupying the adjacent building just a few feet away. To Suzuki, the accommodations aren’t important; it is entirely about spreading the message. After a few opening songs (in which he sings and bangs a tambourine) and a brief welcome, he begins the sermon – usually derived from a recent event in his life. (On this day, he focused on his trip earlier in the month to Las Vegas and the ease with which one can descend into a life of sin or become burdened with the demands of being a single parent.) “He knows all the problems in our lives,” Suzuki assures from the marble pulpit, hands reaching toward the air. “He will send help.”
During slow piano interludes that occasionally break up the sermon, Suzuki sits back in his wood chair, eyes closed, and head turning from side to side with the music. He is in his element. In watching this scene, it takes a bit of a stretch of the imagination to believe that Suzuki is the same man described in his autobiography “Aisarete, Yusarete” (Being Loved and Forgiven), a document of his transgressions early in life. Gambling rings, womanizing, and amphetamine highs were the norm in his late teens and twenties. A lack of respect toward a crime boss cost him the tip of one finger; various gambling debts resulted in two more meetings with a knife blade. His life began to change after he married his third wife, Mariko, a former hostess from South Korea.
Fresh from a two-year stint in jail, it was she who encouraged him to come to church. Still, substantial behavioral changes would take time; he continued on as before, collecting mistresses and playing dice games. He hit bottom in 1990. After fleeing Osaka with a mountain of debt and an army of gangsters on his back, he stumbled into a church in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. There, he would spend three revealing days. Truly moved by the words of the Bible, he soon after entered the seminary, leaving behind the underworld for good.
“People do not believe my past when they look at me in a shirt and tie like this,” he says of the attendees at his various speaking engagements for companies, clubs, and schools around Japan. “They never think that I am the same person. But after hearing what I have to say, they will see something that is happening in their lives. As you know, the Bible seems [at first] to be far away, far from reality.”
Indeed, the Bible is a tough read in Japan, a country dominated by Shinto and Buddhism. Christianity is embraced by no more than one percent of the population. But Suzuki sees the enlightenment offered by Buddhism as not being sufficient for people with troubled pasts. “So many people need God when they are powerless. They do not have the ability to deal with problems. And even though they have achieved enlightenment, it doesn’t mean that they have been saved. They are totally different things.” Japan’s historic societal reluctance to change isn’t a consideration for Suzuki. Cross in hand, he’s set himself to breaking down barriers. Soon after finishing the seminary, he started Mission Barrabbas with other former gang members. They have collected their heavily tattooed torsos under the slightly tongue-in-cheek slogan, “God is our boss.”
Cruising the streets of Funabashi during the week, they assist the downtrodden. For Barabbas, it is a never-ending job. Reverend Suzuki believes that Japanese people as individuals are looking for something new in light of the nation’s recent economic slump and moral degradation documented daily in the media. Being saved is the answer, he says. His drastic physical and emotional changes he’s undergone are the keys to his strategy, and he literally has them coming to him. “The contrast of my happy face with my tattoos shows people things which words cannot convey. And it makes people wonder, ‘Why is he so happy? Why is he acting happy? Why is that?’ Instead of me talking, people come asking what happened – and then they ask about Jesus, because Jesus is the reason.”
The church fills each Sunday with members from all areas of society: drug addicts, returnees from jail, troubled families, and homeless. Mariko is there as well, dutifully greeting all newcomers. Aritomo Ueda, 38, has been traveling 40 kilometers each Sunday from Saitama Prefecture to attend Suzuki’s services. “Originally he was yakuza, but he was changed by Jesus,” says Ueda, who has been in and out of work over the past three years. “This change is something that is very easy for me to appreciate.” After each service, Suzuki walks through the congregation, exchanging greetings and performing impromptu blessings.
Suzuki explains “Whether I have pinkies missing or tattoos, I want to live as I am,” . “Jesus loves me as I am. So I just want people to know the Lord as they are and come to know me as I am.”