A flourish of tattoos marks Hiroyuki Suzuki as a man of the night, of fast bucks and shady deals. The tattoos are the sign of the yakuza--organized crime--and they cover Suzuki's shoulders and those of the group of men standing around him.
They are singing Christmas carols.
Stripped to their undershirts in the cold to bare their tattoos, the strange little band of former gamblers, robbers and petty crooks have followed Suzuki to an even stranger world--preaching Christianity on the streets to a nation of Buddhists and Shintoists.
Suzuki, a hoodlum turned preacher, leads his pals from the underworld at the Mission Barabbas evangelical church, aptly named for the criminal whom Pontius Pilate freed instead of Jesus. Three days before Christmas, they gathered on a busy street in this Tokyo exurb, carrying crosses, preaching and singing hymns.
The setting, bizarrely, looks right. Japan is festive now, with all the trappings of the Christian celebration. Christmas lights are ablaze, Christmas carols float out of stores, some city squares feature decorated trees, and shoppers are everywhere. Japan has adopted the holiday, but without the religion.
Little more than 1 percent of Japanese who say they are religious are Christians. But the whole country embraces a Christ-free Christmas. "They don't really understand what it's about," said Suzuki, 44. "Japanese love festivities, so it is now a part of Japanese life. But it's different than the real meaning of Christmas."
Still, said Suzuki, there is a more generous spirit in the air. Often, when he and his band of evangelists shout public exhortations, they are greeted with scoldings and abuse from members of a society in which religion is usually one of quiet introspection. But at Christmas time, he said, "People say 'Merry Christmas' back to us, and when we say 'Bless you,' they say 'Thank you.' "
Suzuki is accustomed to living on the wrong side of public approval. When he was 17, he embraced organized crime. He was convinced, he said, that this would be his life forever, so he endured the pain of a full body tattoo. Lavishly detailed carp now slither up his arm, and the legendary boy warrior Kintaro strides fiercely across his back to his shoulders. The tattoos are immediately identifiable in Japan as the mark of a gangster. As further evidence of his past, Suzuki is missing part of each pinkie, self-mutilation that was the cost of violating yakuza rules.
His underworld specialty was gambling, a talent that earned him fleeting money, fast women, a long record of arrests, several stints in prison and, eventually, astronomical debts.
At one point during his gangster days, an acquaintance tricked him into going to a Korean Christian church. "I had an image of a church up on a hill, a white building with sloped roof and a cross," he said. "But this was in the first floor of a commercial building with prostitution on one side and bars on another. And instead of a quiet place filled with prayers, here was a lot of yelling and hollering. I had culture shock."
But his syndicate debts earned him a severe beating in 1988, and Suzuki thought his life was over.
He contemplated suicide and, while on the run, collapsed with nervous exhaustion. Finally, he acquiesced to the pleadings of his wife, Mariko, a Korean-born barmaid, to give church another try. He did--so thoroughly that he spent three years in a seminary.
He emerged ready to prove his devotion to his new God. He carried a cross the length of Japan, preached on street corners and eventually opened his church. Here, in a former construction company office measuring about 12 feet by 35 feet, as many as 60 people come on Sundays to hear him preach, he said.
The congregation is varied, Suzuki said, but the ministry speaks the language of hookers and hoodlums, drug addicts and dropouts. The chief apostles of the mission, he said, are the seven tattooed former yakuza members, who, like Suzuki, traded their guns for the gospel.
Kazutomi Shinada, 33, is among them. He learned about Suzuki from a magazine article in 1995, shortly after finishing an eight-year prison term for robbing a casino. His yakuza friends expected him to rejoin the gang, but Shinada said he wanted to change his life.
He was evicted from another church, Shinada said, when in a fever of religious contrition, he took the Bible's admonition to bare himself to God by taking off his clothes in the sanctuary.
"The others really welcomed me here," Shinada said of Suzuki's church. "It's really good to have a group that has had the same experiences in the past. The Bible says we should not forget where you came from, and here we don't."
None of them is shy about the past. Suzuki wrote an autobiography elaborating on his experiences. He and his fellow congregants made a video titled "Tattooed Christians." Their wives followed with another video, titled "Wives of Barabbas." Suzuki even took his story to Washington last year and spoke at the President's Prayer Breakfast.
Suzuki said the elaborate decorations on the evangelists' bodies are useful in attracting attention to their movement. "The tattoo is a symbol of the cursed; it was the same way in the Bible," he said. "But now we use our bodies to explain everything about us. It's a strong draw.
"To explain our past with words isn't easy," he said. "But when we present our bodies, with their tattoos, the message is very clear: 'Look at us. If we can rebuild our lives, so can you.' "
Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Hiroyuki Suzuki leads members of the Mission Barabbas church in singing a psalm in front of a transit station in a Tokyo suburb.