According to the Mormon version of postbiblical events, Joseph Smith, guided by an angel in 1823, found sacred golden plates buried in Manchester, New York, outside Rochester. The plates are claimed to have been buried around the year 400, having been brought from Central America by a man named Mormon. Smith wouldn’t show anyone the plates until he had translated the “reformed Egyptian” — a language unknown to linguists — using a “seer stone.” Only after this miraculous translation did he reveal the plates to just 11 Mormon “witnesses.”

While linguists would call that implausible, archaeologists also have a bone to pick with the Mormon canon, which claims Native American tribes descended from the 12 tribes of Israel. After descending from heaven after his crucifixion, Jesus himself is said to have made the journey to upstate New York, where he performed miracles such as healing the sick.

While American comedian Bill Maher has quipped that Mormonism is “even weird by the standards of other religions,” this historical account is the foundation for Mormonism’s second holy book, The Book of Mormon (the first being the Bible). And while most of the world turns a skeptical — even scornful — eye towards many aspects of the church’s stories, Mormons seem to have dispelled their own doubts. “We believe in a literal interpretation of scripture,” Nagoya area church President Scott Baird said.

It is, perhaps, the stories of modern-day American saints and mysterious gold plates that led influential Texas pastor Robert Jeffress to famously label Mormonism a “cult” last year. And Mormon stories are the centerpiece of the celebrated Broadway musical parody “The Book of Mormon,” co-written by Robert Lopez along with the creators of the hit comedy “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

But whatever your thoughts about the veracity of the church’s scripture and Mormon beliefs, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name “given by revelation from God to Joseph Smith in 1838”) now boasts 14 million members around the world. The church is recognized as the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the United States, with 6 million adherents. And a Mormon, Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney, is now only weeks away from potentially taking the reins of world’s only military and economic superpower. Which begs the question: Who’s laughing now?

The Mormon story in Japan begins only some 30 years after Smith’s original revelation, when, after failing to find converts in China due to bad publicity, a lack of funds and a civil war, the Mormons took advantage of a serendipitous opportunity to gain inroads in another part of Asia.

Seventeen years after U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly thrust Japan into the modern age in 1854, the “Iwakura Mission” of diplomats traveled from Yokohama to the U.S. on the first leg of an around-the-world trip to pick up tips on how to modernize Japan. When their overland journey from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., was halted in Utah by heavy snow, Mormons opened their doors and hearts to the strangers. The Mormons were impressed, calling the Japanese delegates “highly cultured and well-mannered in every way.”

The church had grown to about 100 members in Japan by World War II, when all foreign missionaries were sent home. While the Japanese faithful did not have to face the ordeal of stepping on an image of Christ on pain of death, like Nagasaki Christians of the 17th century, they were well-advised to take their prayers underground.

Relatively recent Mormon lore tells of a Japanese woman who waited patiently for the Mormons to return. When she attempted to enter a U.S. military installation during the Occupation, a guard explained that she would have to be searched for cigarettes or contraband. Somewhat offended, she explained that her Mormon faith forbade cigarettes and alcohol, and required her to follow the law. When the overjoyed guard revealed “I’m a Mormon!” her long wait was over.

The Mormon fondness for a good yarn is satirized in the “Book of Mormon” musical, which revolves around missionaries in Uganda. Upon their arrival in the country, the young Mormons encounter thugs who demand to inspect their luggage. Like the faithful Japanese woman at the U.S. base, they flatly declare: “We don’t do anything illegal. We’re from the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

Later in the play, Elder Cunningham, the insecure nerd who never bothered to read scripture, converts the villagers by weaving elements of “Star Wars” and other sci-fi scenes into the Book of Mormon teachings. The task of convincing locals to shift their attention to everlasting life had seemed hopeless in the face of AIDS, poverty and civil war. Most disconcertingly for the Mormons, locals would sing blasphemous curses on God while dancing wildly.

Mormon missionaries in Japan certainly have it easier. Here they encounter pervasive politeness, even from the disinterested, as they bicycle door to door or hand out literature on street corners, hoping to at least schedule visits with prospective converts. Elder Wilcox, a young missionary from California, noted that people usually refuse warmly, explaining, “We are Buddhist.” While Japan’s towns are safe and her citizenry polite, the going can still be tough. Wilcox estimates that well under 1 percent of people visited agree to a followup meeting.

In his 1996 research paper “Mormonism in Modern Japan,” church member Jiro Numano bemoans a lack of proselytizing success here, noting that “only 20,000 members could be counted as active out of a total membership of more than 87,000, or about 23 percent.” He goes on to note that the number of baptisms —whereby a convert’s entire body is put underwater just as Jesus initiated his disciples — has been declining as well. The church’s own literature puts the number of members in Japan at the end of 2009 at a healthier 123,000.

* * *

Foreign Mormon missionaries in Japan face another formidable obstacle: expense. To make the trip, they need considerable savings, or parental funding, because the church itself provides little assistance. This is despite the fact that tithing 10 percent of one’s income is a virtual requirement, with tithed money going to the Mormon head office to be used to build temples, publish materials and pay salaries.

What this means is that the simple lifestyle of missionaries is as much out of necessity as design. In fact, on the online forum “Recovering from Mormonism,” Yuko Cardon puts tithing as the No. 1 burden of a missionary in Japan. She also ends No. 7 by complaining, “The Church asks us to give everything!”

Mormons are indeed serious about their faith and commitments. In addition to the Bible’s Ten Commandments, the church demands of its members: no dating until age 16, and always with a chaperone; no immodest dress; no tattoos or body piercing; no media that “drives away the spirit” (especially porn); no music that “encourages immorality or glorifies violence through its lyrics, beat, or intensity”; no masturbation or homosexuality; and no alcohol, tobacco, coffee or tea.

Yasuo Goto, a Mormon for 39 years, recalls the confusion among hosts. “When I refused tea, they would attempt to serve coffee. When I refused that too, they asked hopefully, ‘Black tea?’ Then I saw it as an opportunity to explain about my faith.”

Lapsed Mormon Cardon, however, found having to refuse tea grating. “It is very rude to decline tea when the host tries his/her very best to show you hospitality,” she writes. “The Mormon have to explain each time (many times a day!) at every occasion (in a company too!) why they don’t drink.”

However, Conan Grames, a Utah retiree who came to serve the Mormon mission in Japan, notes that allowances to rules are made. “The church has no problem with people observing Japanese customs such as their New Year’s visit to a shrine, or keeping a butsudan (Buddhist altar) in the home.”

Grames, Baird and other Mormons were gracious and kind to me on my visit to the church’s meetinghouse in Gifu, despite the fact I had criticized Mormon proselytizing in a recent Japan Times article, calling Mormon missionary work ethnocentric and “from a bygone age.” For sure, Mormons are not here to have a dialog about spirituality, but to preach.

Many foreigners view Mormon missionaries here as con men. The view of Canadian Kyoto resident Tim Curnew, who encountered many Mormon missionaries while living in Kumamoto, is far from the exception. “(They) target the young, ‘lost’ and disillusioned as potential converts,” he said. “Mormons take advantage of those in weakened mental states as the best targets for brainwashing.”

The Mormon church service, however, has the feel of a close-knit family occasion. At one service, individual members spoke about love, acceptance and gratitude in front of the congregation. Three Japanese women were actually moved to tears while speaking about the many ways God has helped them.

Even more than most churches, Mormons foster community. There is no priest, so members, including children, speak at services. The local bishop makes himself available to hear any sort of problem a member wants to discuss. If the issue is financial, for example, church members rally around the person, suggesting or offering appropriate business opportunities. Goto, who, like all members, visits other church members once a month to offer support, says the Mormon emphasis is on self-reliance, not charity.

There is some flexibility within the church regarding doctrine as interpreted by a “president” who is thought to be, like the pope, in direct communication with God. The original prophet, Joseph Smith, had plenty of revelations (even though he didn’t initially describe them as such), including the claim that polygamy would lead to spiritual perfection.

After the U.S. government made polygamy a felony, the church, in a convenient divine reversal, claimed in 1890 that church President Wilford Woodruff had his own revelation that contradicted Smith (even though Smith’s original statement was merely a recommendation, made without any mention of God’s view on the matter).

U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s grandfather escaped the U.S. in the late 1800s to enjoy multiple wives in Mexico. Today, small groups who call themselves “fundamentalist Mormons” continue to practice polygamy in and around Utah, citing Smith’s revelations. The church, however, now excommunicates anyone practicing plural marriage. Similarly, the church’s refusal to allow blacks to participate in ceremonies or be ordained (early Mormon writings claimed blacks were cursed) was lifted in 1978.

The polygamy controversy in particular continues to dog Mormons, with critics arguing that women are seen as subservient by the church. Baird’s wife, Bonnie, however, couldn’t disagree more. “It is in fact liberating to be a female in the church,” she said. “We are given leadership opportunities, we are active and we speak in our church services.”

Another important component of the Mormon mission is service, and few charities, religious or otherwise, outshine the church in this regard. According to Elder Grames, in the immediate aftermath of the 3/11 disaster, the church provided the third most aid of any NGO, behind the Red Cross and the Japan Society of New York. Moreover, their missionaries personally visited stricken areas, asked locals what they needed and provided for the needs of many right after the disaster.

“When fishermen said they needed refrigerators most, that’s what we got them, no strings attached,” recalled Grames. In addition to material support, he explained that they provide emotional support as well, “listening and holding hands.” While the service arm of the church does explain who they are and why they provide relief (the teachings of Christ), they ask for nothing in return, and do not so much as ask recipients to attend a service.

Like missionary expenses, this relief money does not come directly from funds tithed to the church, but is collected separately. In fact, Mormons fast two consecutive meals every month, donating the meal money to charity.

Mormons also offer free English classes. Students are allowed to attend classes for years without ever attending a service, and teachers only take a few moments at the end to proselytize.

Still, negative press persists. A critical Reuters article dated June 29 notes that “Mormonism bills itself as the one ‘true’ Christian faith.” And a link to the Recovering from Mormonism site lists 47 other blogs written by ex-Mormons, including mormontwistianity.blogspot.com and marvelousblunder.blogspot.com.

Practices such as the posthumous baptism of non-Mormons — in particular Anne Frank — have bred resentment. Grames, however, explains that the church forbids the practice of baptizing the ancestors of nonbelievers, but that it’s impossible to control rogue elements. Liberal Mormons recently protested against the church in Salt Lake City, speaking against its stand on homosexuality and teachings that conflict with science, and against perceived racism and sexism.

Mormons have gained acceptance in Japan over the years. Goto says that once an elderly woman in Nagano called the police when approached by a clean-cut, white-shirted Mormon missionary. And his own parents cried after neighbors grilled them about their 16-year-old son’s decision to join what was then, in 1973, an unknown religion in Japan. His three children all remained in the church, and their hopes are high that his newborn grandchildren will do likewise. “It’s important to think about the next life, after we die,” Goto explained. For Mormons, everything in this life is preparation for the next one.

Focus on the afterlife is parodied in the final scene of the Broadway play. The Mormons, touched by African culture, dance and sing: “Who cares what matters when we’re dead? We shouldn’t think that far ahead!” And the great Mormon storyteller, the nerd named Arnold who made stuff up to convert Africans, becomes a prophet whose book, “The Book of Arnold,” is revered.

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.