—— As a priest, what was the most unforgettable experience you had in America?
In 1998, the year after I took over as the third top man of the Mission Barabbas, a group (which got its name from a notorious man condemned to death for whom Jesus instead died) made up of former Yakuza members who have converted to the Christian religion, I was afforded the opportunity to give a speech at a breakfast meeting by invitation from then President Bill Clinton. Two years prior to that, while my group was visiting Hawaii to conduct missionary work without visas -- we were unaware that “visas were necessary for ex-convicts” -- we were deported and were told we probably wouldn’t be able to go back to America.
That was probably God’s guidance because I met a man at a hot spring in Japan and he was the banquets coordinator for the president. He said, “Your testimony, if you speak candidly about the things you are ashamed of, would offer hope to people in the depths of despair. That’s the testimony of Christ and I would like people around the world to hear it,” he said. “You should pray. If you pray about it, God will help you,” he said before he went back to America. And he included my name on a list of 12 Japanese nationals invited to attend a breakfast meeting. The banquets were put on by the Upper House and Lower House at the Washington, D.C., Hilton Hotel, and the speeches included six each in the morning and lunch sessions in front of roughly 3,000 people.
As one of those six people, I told the story of how I found Jesus and how he helped me after I had lived the life of a Yakuza, one the dregs of society, through an interpreter in a roughly 10-minute speech. In addition to world-renowned evangelist Mr. Billy Graham and the daughter of Tibetan Buddhism’s top leader, the Dalai Lama, the banquet hall was filled with many heads of state, foreign affairs ministers and exceptional people from 160 countries.
—— After you converted to Christianity, what was your first activity?
In 1992, an extraordinary project was started in which a crucifix that was 30 meters long and weighed 40 kilograms was going to be carried across Japan in a roadside evangelistic crusade. The opportunity came when I met Pastor Arthur Hollands, a half Japanese and half American preacher. Before I knew it, I was assisting him with his curb-side preaching in Kabuki Town in Shinjuku and learned of the plans for the “marching of the cross.” It was then that I rededicated myself with increased meaning and asked to be allowed to participate in the march. We left from Okinawa and on the third day, I was walking in Kumamoto Prefecture and said: “To all members of the Kumamoto Prefectural Police Department, I am the Hiroyuki Suzuki who caused you trouble in the past. I have turned over a new leaf and have come to believe in Jesus Christ. Human beings cannot be saved by laws. I found that they can only be saved by love. Please, believe in God,” were the words that amazingly came from my mouth. That was when I initially became aware of the feeling that the gentle hand of God was there to guide me.
During the march across Japan, one by one, Yakuza members gave up their lifestyles and joined our effort. After more than five months of marching, at the end of the event, we had reached a total of nine members.
—— When you look back on your life with the Yakuza, how old were you when you got started?
A turning point in my life came when I started high school. In my junior high school days, I was active as a swimmer ̶ I was one of the top three in the Osaka City but I couldn’t improve my times and I felt I couldn’t get any better. Because of that, in high school, I joined the rugby club. However, corrupted by one of the older students, I began to play around with paint thinner and started cutting classes. After that, I committed about 100 cases of blackmail and got expelled from school. I started helping out at a coffee shop owned by a friend whose uncle was a top member of a Yakuza group and while delivering to a gambling facility and to a Yakuza group, I felt like a full-fledged bad boy. One day, I got into a fight with a guy at a disco, but coincidentally he happened to be a Yakuza member. I was so terrified that I was going to be chased down, so the simple idea that “if I also become a Yakuza and go up against him, he won’t be so scary,” started to grow in me and I just set foot into the world of Yakuza.
—— What would you question or regret about your life on the dark side have you sensed?
I have feelings of regret for my parents. But it was a case of mob psychology at work and things I would never have done on my own, with others around, I didn’t think about it, I just did it. In fact, when I was 26, my mother had cerebral hemorrhage and two years after that my father had a heart attack and they died. If that wasn’t enough, a couple of years after that my brother, two years my junior, also passed away. In his childhood, my little brother got a scar inside his brain from playing with swords. The scar grew progressively to the size of a thumb and that was the cause of an epileptic seizure and he suffocated to death. My hard-working parents and little brother’s lives were taken and hopeless me was all who was left alive was. I was angry at the reality that worthless me was the only one left alive. At that point, I told myself, “It’s all over if you die. The winners in life are the ones who do whatever they want.” I started to believe in only myself and money.
—— What was your lifestyle like when you reached the top of the Yakuza world?
I had climbed to the No. 2 position of a huge organization and had two gambling dens that I ran. I also spent some time behind bars, but I thought there was no other way for me except being a gangster. When I finished my second term in jail and was 32 years old, I met my current wife, who was working in a nightclub. It was her dream to come from Korea to work in Japan but she was struggling in the void between that dream and reality. At around that time, because I was also lonely and carrying all sorts of personal baggage, we filled in the gaps in each other’s hearts. We began living together, but when I was in a bad mood, I would become violent and punch and kick my wife. When she was worn down physically and emotionally, she tried to escape the pain. My wife began frequenting a church. After that, she took me, who was in debt, to the church. After that, I began going to church regularly. I didn’t believe in God at all, but all the while I was thinking, “If I pray, maybe something good will come of it,” my appearance mysteriously was becoming more positive. Before long, a rumor had started going around that I was making money. Everyone knew that I had skill as a gambler, and the rumors triggered more rumors and people who had come into large sums of money during the bubble started packing into my gambling spot. My debt of ￥200 million was paid back in full in six months and as for the books, at the height of business we reached the point where we were pulling in about ￥100 million a night.
—— It was after this that a transformation of your life came about?
The moneymaking had gained momentum and, with women other than my wife, I started to head for the nightlife. After that, I got tired of the ordinary life and picked up a drug habit. Because of this, I didn’t realize that my relationships with people had begun to crumble and before long, I had gotten into a situation that I couldn’t get myself out of. I was no longer able to stay in the Yakuza world, my life was in danger and I was caught at an impasse.
For 17 years, I was self-confident and thought, “I am strong.” However, it was at this time that I first realized that I was under the protection of the bosses in the large organization and I was cornered by the very people who were supposed to be protecting me. I had no place to go. Looking at myself, I saw a fearful, trembling, crying and weak being who could do nothing but hide. At that time, my wife and I had a daughter who had just been born and there might have been other ways to deal with things, but I abandoned my wife and child and ran off to Tokyo.
In Tokyo, I continued fooling myself when things didn’t go as I had planned and I escaped in alcohol, drugs and the pleasures of life. Gradually, I was obsessed with the delusion that everyone around me wanted to kill me. Even the chirping sounds of small birds began to sound like the roars of wild beasts and I just closed myself up in the house, trembling. Because of symptoms unknown, I sometimes had to be taken to the hospital, and I had been tormented mentally and physically. I thought the only way to save myself was to commit suicide. Even though I put a gun to my temple many times, because of the shaking and heavy sweat, I couldn’t pull the trigger. My life had no meaning, but I wasn’t going to die. When I was suffering in pain alone, the faces of my wife and child suddenly come into sight, and I was sure she was praying for a curse that would kill me. The instant that I thought that God had put a curse on me and was watching me day and night, I felt like I wanted to scream. Then I ran out into the quiet night and roamed through Shinjuku until dawn. I suddenly stopped and when I looked up, what caught my eye was a cross on a church. It was like I was being pulled in, and I headed toward the church.
—— What made you knock on the church door?
I was of the thought that “It takes a Yakuza to go up against a Yakuza,” so instinctively, I probably figured, “To go up against a curse from God, I needed God’s help. God can see nothing but what’s inside our hearts. The pastor counseled me by saying,“God loves even those seen by others as a wretch.” In my heart, I muttered, “I don’t believe this kind of talk.” The next thing I knew, I was screaming with tears in my eyes, “Help me!”
However, the moment the pastor said, “You are loved,” I lashed out with, “What does a person like you know about me?” He hadn’t even asked me anything, but he continued speaking. And when he did that, I felt something inside of me changing. And then Jesus became my spiritual “boss” and I vowed to live my life with him.
In this situation, I heard a voice say, “There is something you have to do. Don’t you have someone waiting to see you?” And while I thought, “There’s no way that anyone is waiting for me,” I was a restless mess and hopped on a train and headed for Osaka. And my wife, who had no reason to love or forgive me, acted as if nothing had ever happened when she kindly came to pick me up.
—— What is the message that the members convey in “Jesus is my Boss,” an autobiographical movie made in 2001?
When I was approached about the movie idea, I said, “This is not the kind of life you want to make known,” and I declined. However, I was persuaded by the idea of doing it as part of spreading the gospel and we made up our minds to do it with the support of every member.
The bubble collapsed and took with it the dreams of many people; downsizing triggered the number of suicides among 40- to 50-year-olds to skyrocket; erased hopes and left people homeless with no place to go … people placed in a reality such as this, “have no chance of planning to perhaps start their lives over.” I want this movie to be a ticket to hope for those who want to take off with a fresh start. “You can make a fresh start. Wherever you are, you can make a fresh start.” This is a never-wavering fact in which I firmly believe.
Not every human being is strong. Even among everyone living in the foreign land of America, some are likely faced with a wide range of issues such as the communication and mixed- marriage barriers. It’s in those times that you need to look inside yourself and summon up your roadmap. If you have the will to move toward the goal “to live,” you will never lose your way.