The first Japanese Baha’i
Kanichi Yamamoto (1879-1961) became the first Japanese Bahá’í in the world in Honolulu in 1902. While in Hawaii, he started working at the home of Mr. and Mrs. William Smith in Honolulu. The Smiths' son, Clarence was already a Bahá’í and a Bahá’í woman by the name of Miss Elizabeth Muther also lived at the Smith's home. A while after Mr. Yamamoto's arrival, Miss Muther decided to share Bahá’u’lláh's message with Mr. Yamamoto. She has described the process of how she came to this decision in a letter to a friend that is dated September 8, 1902:
"After I became a believer I felt that sometime I might tell (Mr. Yamamoto). I prayed that his heart might be prepared to receive the truth. Although it was a little difficult to give him the Message because of his imperfect knowledge of English, yet God helped me so that he understands perfectly and is rejoicing in the Knowledge of His Truth. I have just had a little talk with him and he told me how happy he was and that he expects to write his letter to the Master [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] this evening."
A hundred years ago Kanichi Yamamoto wrote ‘Abdu’l-Baha a letter in Japanese. When Kanichi Yamamoto first learned of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, he wished to write to the Master and declare to Him his belief but he was concerned that his English was too poor. His spiritual mother—Miss Elizabeth Muther—encouraged him to write in his native language, assuring him that the Master would comprehend the spirit of his letter.
Upon receiving the letter in Japanese, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had said to His secretary jokingly: “Well, do you not know Japanese?” With a bow his secretary responded, “No Master, I hardly know English!” “Then what shall we do with this letter?”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá questioned him with a smile. “Perhaps you should do with it as you did the others”, had been His secretary’s reply. “Very well!”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá exclaimed, “I will turn to Bahá’u’lláh and he will tell me what to say”.
Although ‘Abdu’l- Baha didn’t know Japanese He understood the words of the heart, and sent Yamamoto-san (‘san’ is a respective term in Japanese to mean Mr. or Sir it can also be used for females to mean Mrs. or Miss) a beautiful letter in reply. Yamamoto-san was very happy and grateful to receive ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s wonderful letter. Abdu’l-Baha told Yamamoto-san that he “….must warble like the nightingale of significance in the rose garden so that thou mayest inspire all the birds of the meadow to chant and to sing.” The nightingale sings more beautifully than any other bird, Abdu’l-Baha was telling Yamamoto-san to tell everyone about the beautiful teachings of Bahá’u’lláh so they could tell other people too.
He later moved to Oakland, California where he worked in the home of Mrs. Helen Goodall. In 1909 Yamamoto-san married a young Japanese woman named Ima. Yamamoto-san and Ima-san had five boys, 3 of which Abdu'l-Baha met.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in California on October 3, 1912. His first talk was at the Goodall home later that day.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed in San Francisco at 1815 California Street in a house prepared for Him by Helen Goodall and Ella Cooper. It was Mr. Yamamoto’s privilege to live in the home and serve Him during those never-to-be-forgotten days.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá dearly loved Mr. Yamamotos’s three son and held them each on His knee, talked to them, and gave each one a special names: Hiroshi, the oldest, he called Hassan; Shinji, He named Husayn; and Masao was give the name Farok.
The meeting arranged by Mr. Yamamoto for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to address the Japanese YMCA at the Oakland Japanese Independent Church gave the Master special pleasure because the members were Orientals. The women brought their babies for His blessing, and “He showed great favor to the Japanese friends". Here, he proclaimed: “…the people of the Japanese nation are not prejudiced. They investigate reality. Wherever they find truth they prove to be its lovers”
During World War II, the Yamamotos were forced to relocate to an internment camp where they had to work in the fields. After the war, Kanichi and his family returned to Berkeley where he served the Faith until his passing in 1961.