Bong-choon Choi, aka. Sang-ik Choi (1936-2023), historical hero passed away
One of the key persons of the early days of the Unification Movement, Bong-choon Choi (pronounced Chè), a true hero passed away on 24th February 2023. He died peacefully in his home in San Francisco, USA, 87 years old.
In unimaginably difficult circumstances he succeeded to establish the movement in Japan in 1958-59. He risked his life by arriving as a stowaway on a South Korean boat under cover of darkness and was tortured severely by the Japanese police when discovered. Only on the third such attempt did he succeed.
Father Moon describes in his autobiography why such an entry into the neighbouring country became necessary,
“Travel to Japan was not allowed for most Koreans. His only option was to try to enter Japan even without a visa. He would need to endure many things. […] Following the collapse of Japanese colonial rule and the liberation of Korea in 1945, the two countries had not established diplomatic relations. Japan had not recognized the government in Seoul, and Korea considered Japan an enemy country. […] A number of attempts were made to send a missionary to Japan, but these were unsuccessful.”
Choi’s advantage was that he had grown up in Japan, spending 15 years there from the age of two. His Japanese name was Masaru Nishikawa. Koreans were forced to take Japanese names during the occupation until 1945. He was born in Busan, Korea in 1936 as Sang-ik Choi, but his father changed the name to Bong-choon.
He himself asked Father Moon to send him to Japan to set up the movement there, when he was 23 years old. Choi had joined the Unification Church in 1957, and soon after he was introduced to the Unification Principles, he thought, “I would like to bring these words to Japan.”
Choi had actually smuggled himself into Japan on a previous occasion, when he went there as a teenager to attend a Christian theological school after converting to Christianity.
His father was a local leader of Tenrikyo, an influential new religious movement, springing out of the national Japanese religion of Shintoism. The father spent all his money on his faith. From an early age, Bong-choon Choi was forced, as the oldest son, to support his family financially when they became poor. This made him feel distrustful towards religion. He became an atheist and started drinking under the strain.
After arriving in Japan in 1958, for six years until 1964, he built a strong foundation for the Unification Church in Japan. After six arduous initial months in Tokyo, he got a job as a salesman for a watch shop in the commercial district of Shinjuku. He was busy with his job during the morning, and would evangelise in the afternoon. He began holding small meetings in a room above the shop once a week.
The first Sunday service was held on 2nd October 1959, and that became the day that the Unification Church of Japan now commemorates as its founding day.
In April 1960, he met Michiko Matsumoto. In spite of her Japanese name, she was a Korean Christian. She became a devoted follower, introducing Setsuko Ogawa (Sakurai), a university student, who joined 1st November 1960. From then on, the number of members grew steadily. To reach that point had been extremely difficult. Matsumoto explained,
“Nobody listened to him. He was always refused. He had no money, no food, no clothes, and was so exhausted as to cough out blood from tuberculosis from which he had suffered in his youth. But he went on mission. He slept in parks or playgrounds of schools fearing to be in the crowds. When he looked at himself on the glass window, he was shocked to see such a miserable figure […] with long hair, a pale face, and a skinny body. Not many came. Still, he wanted to start a church […].”
According to Ken Sudo (the 29th person to join in Japan – 22nd August 1962) in a speech titled A Memoir from the Early Period of the Unification Church of Japan, in the Spring of 1962, Komiyama, a young member of the Rissho Kosei-kai, a large Buddhist new religious movement, was introduced to the Unification Church by Hideo Sawaura in Tokyo. Komiyama introduced it to Osami Kuboki, a youth leader of that Buddhist group and secretary for its president Nikkyo Niwano. Kuboki joined the small Unification Church in August 1962 and brought with him many other Buddhists.
He became its first chairman when it was registered as a religious organization in July 1964. At that time, the headquarters was established in Shibuya, Tokyo. Before then, in the Summer of 1962, a wealthy lady and her two daughters became members and donated their property so that a large training center could be constructed, called Rittai Cultural Center.
In November 1965 Choi was reassigned as a missionary to the USA. He worked in the San Francisco area and employed those things he had learnt from building a movement in Japan very successfully in California. He emphasized character education. In 1969 he published the book Principles of Education, written based on the Unification Principles for a secular audience.
Bong-choon Choi was blessed in marriage to Mi-shik Shin in a ceremony for 33 couples in Seoul on 15th May 1961.
Featured image above: Sun Myung Moon and Bong-choon Choi in 1958 in South Korea. Photo: FFWPU
Text: Knut Holdhus