On the afternoon of August 26, after the August Monthly Service at Church Headquarters, Shikataro Ito was in a vehicle that left Jiba and was heading back to Shizuoka with a number of fellow worshipers from Kakegawa Branch Church. Someone in the pilgrimage group received a call on their cell phone. “Mr. Ito, it was our church. Your family wants you to call home.”
Shikataro, who does not carry a cell phone, borrowed one and immediately called home. His granddaughter answered and simply said, “Grandpa, come straight home, will you?”
Shikataro tried his best to suppress his uneasiness as he thought to himself, “Something must have happened.”
When he reached home, he found a large number of reporters assembled in front of his house. They attempted to get a comment out of him but he calmly informed them he did not know anything since he had just returned from a trip outside the prefecture. Inside, a tense atmosphere pervaded the home. His son Masayuki quietly said: “Dad, Kazuya has been kidnapped. We don’t know if he is dead or alive.”
While the family desperately hoped Kazuya’s life would somehow be spared, they were informed the next day that the young man’s body had been found.
Shikataro converted to Tenrikyo in the years after World War II. He lost his home in Hamamatsu in an air raid and relocated with his family to Kakegawa City. He worked a small agricultural plot, got married, and was blessed with three children. Yet the social instability in the aftermath of the war wore him out spiritually and, when the local residents treated him as an outsider, his belligerent nature often led him to get into trouble with them.
He thought to himself that he would be a burden on his wife and children if things remained as they were. He felt the need for spiritual renewal when he remembered that one of his mother’s old friends was a follower of Tenrikyo, and he visited Kakegawa Branch Church, which was located in his neighborhood. There he was recommended to enroll in Shuyoka, the three-month Spiritual Development Course held in Jiba, and he subsequently did so. He had a Tenrikyo altar enshrined in his home after completing the course and faithfully made visits to his church and pilgrimages to Jiba. His wife and eldest daughter also completed Shuyoka. Shikataro did his best to instill the teachings of Tenrikyo in his children, stressing the importance of expressing gratitude and proactively doing things that bring joy to others.
Kazuya participated in the Children’s Pilgrimage virtually every year when he was young and would attend the monthly service held in the Itos’ home on a regular basis prior to his departure for Afghanistan. Shikataro recalls: “He was a rather quiet and gentle boy. Even when someone gave him a snack or a toy, he would say, ‘I’m fine,’ and give it to his younger brother or sister instead.”
One exchange with his grandson that he particularly remembers took place when Kazuya was in elementary school. When he asked Kazuya “What do you want to do when you grow up?” the answer was, “Grandpa, I want to do something to help people who are in trouble.”
After graduating from an agricultural high school and an agricultural junior college, he joined a non-governmental organization. Beginning in 2003, Kazuya taught cultivation techniques of crops such as sweet potatoes in a village in eastern Afghanistan.
Several days after the incident, a post-mortem was performed at a local university hospital before Kazuya’s body was brought to his family home. Shikataro was surprised at how unexpectedly clean his grandson’s remains were preserved: “Since I heard that Kazuya was shot, I feared the worse. I have seen many of my friends suffer cruel deaths on the battlefield. I automatically offered my thanks to God. I could not help but do so.”
What has helped the Ito family cope with their loss has been none other than Kazuya’s own words and actions during his life. He expressed a burning desire to assist developing countries in the statement of purpose he wrote when joining the non-governmental organization that belied his usual quiet and unassuming demeanor. While he admitted that there may be some naivet on his part in desiring to help people in Afghanistan when he wasn’t fully sure if he could endure the harsh environment there, he nevertheless wrote that nothing would begin unless he undertook the task of going to Afghanistan himself.
Even when Kazuya first departed for Afghanistan, he told his parents of his wish to be buried there if anything ever happened to him. Also, whenever he intermittently returned to Japan he repeatedly told his younger brother, “It’ll be your duty to take over the household if something happens to me.”
Shikataro says: “At the time, we felt that Kazuya was being a little over the top with such statements. But now, when we look back, they tell us how seriously determined and prepared he was and that there was nothing half-baked about his leaving Japan.”
A room in the Ito house is devoted to storing, along with Kazuya’s remains, a number of mementos of his days in Afghanistan. They include photos of the people and landscape of Afghanistan. What is striking about the photos is the dynamic expressions of the villagers from a part of the world that is known to shun contact with outsiders. Placed next to these photos is an ethnic musical instrument Kazuya received as a present.
According to the information Shikataro heard, the villagers searched for his grandson immediately after his kidnapping. When they found his body, the whole village deeply mourned as if they had lost a member of their own family. Before his body was flown home, the villagers conducted a funeral for Kazuya, whom they saw as a “star of Afghanistan.” Further, after his funeral in Japan, true to his wishes, a part of Kazuya’s remains was buried in Afghanistan. The non-governmental organization Kazuya worked for and the villagers he worked with have plans to build a memorial and an agricultural farm bearing his name.
When news of the incident was broadcast across Japan, people of all ages, including junior high and high school students, wrote encouraging letters stating their admiration of Kazuya’s aspiration. Over a hundred letters have arrived at the Itos’ home. Shikataro expressed his thoughts as follows: “I am proud of the fact that Kazuya’s way of life and convictions have been well received by the people of Afghanistan and Japan. There is no way that his efforts were in vain. It is unfortunate that he wasn’t able to completely fulfill his dreams. Though his life was a short one, Kazuya has left us with much. I would like to commend him for a job well done. That’s what I feel at this moment.”
On September 26, exactly a month after the incident, Shikataro could be seen in the precincts of Church Headquarters, informing God the Parent and Oyasama once again of Kazuya’s passing away for rebirth and expressing his appreciation for the providence that his grandson received during his life.