KAWAGUCHI, SAITAMA (TR) – From the cracked exterior paint to the crumbling wood trim, the “snack” club June Bride appears to have the appropriately rundown look favored by just about every watering hole in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. Impressions change, however, once one enters and sees the sketches of Jesus Christ taped to the silver wallpaper and the wooden cross propped against the back wall.
The proprietor is Tatsuya Shindo, and he is not a barman. From the age of 20, Shindo peddled stimulants in and around Tokyo for a gangster family under the nationwide Sumiyoshi-kai yakuza syndicate. When multiple jail stints followed thereafter, he decided to start offering something else entirely: the gospel.
“I know how bad I was and the bad things I had done,” says Shindo, 39, thin-framed and sporting a devilish bit of chin stubble. “At the same time, I know how much I was forgiven by God. So I wanted to engage myself in God’s work.”
Now the former gangster presides over the independent Friends of Sinners Jesus Christ Church inside this converted bar, where Shindo takes the pulpit and preaches to some of the Kanto region’s former troublemakers on the mend.
“They are seeking divine intervention,” says Shindo, a native of Kawaguchi. “They want God to help them with their problems.”Services are held on Saturdays and Sundays and accommodate roughly 100 parishioners, which include former gang members or the parents of current prisoners. Red felt chairs, cigarette burns intact, act as pews. The bar counter is in place, with stools rimming its edge and glasses filed on shelves behind. Just to the left is the pulpit, where Shindo stands, decked out in a robe and gripping the Bible.
The scant accommodations seem to make no difference to Shindo. A peek inside one of his services will likely reveal the minister standing, head bowed, arms outstretched and reaching towards the ceiling, not far from where a gaudy glass chandelier hangs. Followers sit beneath, listening intently, as he seeks guidance from above.
Such a scene would have been unbelievable two decades ago. With his parents separated, Shindo began using the stimulant drug crystal meth from the age of 17. Not long after, he joined a yakuza gang and began selling on the street. As a 28-year-old, he had become a full-fledged gang boss with credit card fraud and the collection of mikajimeryo — protection money due on the third day of each month — from sex clubs among his attributes.
But troubles mounted. First, he was addicted to crystal meth, using it three to four times a day. Further, when driving one of his gang’s vehicles while intoxicated with a female passenger inside, he got in a wreck. As a means of atonement, he trimmed the tip of his left pinkie. All told, he was arrested seven times, with three of those occasions leading to prison stays. Women began to give up on him, and his gang finally asked him to leave.Things started to change for Shindo during his second prison term. He came across the writings of Hiroyuki Suzuki, a mobster-turned-minister who leads a congregation at the Siloam Christ Church in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture.
What could be considered a revelation, however, occurred following his arrest in May, 2001, when his BMW was searched in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district and found to have 130 grams of crystal meth. While behind bars (for the final time) in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, he read the Old Testament’s Ezekiel 33:11, in which the Lord does not wish death upon the wicked, but rather encourages reform.
“That is my driving force, my gasoline,” he says of the passage. “I don’t have to read the lines any longer; it is all inside me.”
Upon his release, Shindo began a correspondence with Suzuki. At the age of 33, he entered theological school Jesus To Japan in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, and two years later, when he founded Friends of Sinners Jesus Christ Church, he began meeting with and preaching to society’s dropouts.
Holding services in the snack was not easy in the beginning as Shindo was low on funds. Still he knew that if he performed the duties of God, he would receive all that would be necessary. “In the beginning, it was only me,” he remembers. “So I was preaching to the walls.” (It helped that June Bride is a snack his mother has owned since he was young.)
But he steadily found followers, and two books have followed: the biographical “You Can Always Start Over,” released in January, and April’s “The Mafia Minister’s Street Talk,” a compilation of lectures.
For decades, Japan’s criminal underworld operated largely in the wide open. Now, with this year’s scandal that followed revelations that gangsters assisted sumo wrestlers in betting on baseball games and some initial attempts to exclude them from industries where they have historically thrived, such as construction, society is increasingly showing less tolerance for organized crime.
Shindo wants to convey the message that there is another option available for criminals wanting to escape. “I wanted to show people that anyone can do this,” he says, though simultaneously admits that he very easily could have been killed by gangster forces not happy with his decision. “Especially, I wanted to show people with a similar background to me.”One avid follower is Yoshinori Ishido, 27, formerly a specialist in yami kinyu (loan sharking). His territories of operation were Tokyo’s Otsuka, Takadanobaba, Nakano and Ikebukuro districts. He exchanged letters with Shindo while in prison.
“Little by little, over the years, his correspondence with me caused my heart to change,” says Ishido, who today works at a wine bar and attends services regularly.
With Suzuki as his predecessor, Shindo believes that it is perfectly logical for gangsters seek a path towards Christ. The rigid, top-down structural hierarchy of criminal families is similar to a church, he says, “and in both cases, you have to listen to your boss.”
Shindo realizes, however, that there are some things that he cannot change. His trimmed left digit and the colorful tattoos of mythic creatures that crawl over his upper torso and biceps are both vivid reminders of his past.
He further acknowledges that there will be critics who may say that he is exploiting his background to gather attention to his current activities — a point that he finds understandable but also one he is ready to challenge.
“If I take a pool of 10 people and one or two people criticize me but another one or two stand by me,” he says, “then it is worth it.”
Note: Friends of Sinners Jesus Christ Church is on the Web here. Services on Saturdays begin at 7:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m.