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Monday, August 2, 1999 Published at 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Gangster's conversion pulls in followers

Reverend Suzuki leads a successful congregation

By Tokyo Correspondent Juliet Hindell

The gospel can rescue you from a life of crime - just look at me.

That is the message of a former Japanese gangster who is trying to spread the gospel in Japan.

The former yakuza says Christianity's power of forgiveness helped him leave behind the underworld.

[ image: No chance to hide his past...]
No chance to hide his past...
And now his message is remarkably successful in a country where only a minority of the population are Christians.

I met up with Reverend Hiroyuki Suzuki at his church in Tokyo.

The service was packed, the message about peace and goodwill.

Break with the past

For 17 years he had a more violent vocation: As a yakuza he dealt drugs, was in jail twice and cut off both his little fingers, a traditional ritual yakuza perform to show their loyalty to the gang.

But now Reverend Suzuki says he's serving a higher boss.

"When I was a yakuza, I treated my wife really badly, but as she was a Christian she forgave me," he says.

"I've learnt the power of forgiveness through Jesus Christ, he's my boss now," the Reverend adds.

The illustrated man

Reverend Suzuki does not usually change out of his cassock in the presence of women but he wanted to show me something: his tattoos.

The BBC's Juliet Hindell reports on the reformed Japanese gangster who has rejected crime for Christianity
In deep blues and greens, carps swim up his arms, and a samurai subdues crashing waves.

The pictures cover arms and shoulders. They are, like his missing fingers, the indelible mark of a yakuza. He could not hide his past even if he tried.

The tattoos have become an unlikely trademark for his brand of Christianity.

"In Japan there is a belief that only pure people can go to church, but with my past people feel comfortable coming to me with their problems," he says.

The yakuza turned vicar has written a successful book on his conversion and his unusual church is popular with people who feel they have nowhere else to go in Japanese society.

A church for all

I was introduced to Kazunoda Shinoda. He is also a former yakuza, who has also lost the little finger on his left hand.

[ image: ....and his example attracts followers]
....and his example attracts followers
He says people see his hands and immediately label him a gangster.

But this church is one place where his past does not matter.

Reverend Suzuki often reflects on his past. His story of leaving a life of crime for a life in the Christian church would be extraordinary anywhere but it's even more extraordinary in Japan where only 1% of the population is Christian.

Shinto, the country's original religion has more than 800 gods. Most people in Japan have a practical approach to religion and mix Shinto and Buddhism at they see fit.

Professor Yugo Suzuki, the head of a Christian university in Tokyo, thinks the yakuza church is good for Christianity's image in Japan.

"It's important because it shows that it isn't just an intellectual philosophy but a force that can change a person, " he says.

When I met them, Reverend Suzuki and his congregation were celebrating the fourth anniversary of the church.

There are 60 regular members which is more than most churches can boast in Japan.

It is all a far cry from the yakuza's underworld but it is Reverend Suzuki's criminal past which is making Christianity more approachable for many in Japan.

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