When Cornelius Iida ex’55 BD’62 was 14 years old and in a Japanese classroom, his teacher distributed application forms for every boy to fill out and return. The application was for eventual enlistment as a kamikaze pilot. “I was drawn to the idea of sacrificing myself for my country,” said Iida. “We were taught to be militaristic from an early age. We wanted to fight the B-29 bombers from the West.”
Iida’s father caught his son working on the form and, in tears, counseled that the war would end and Japan would need a variety of skills when peace returned. The young man tore up the form.
Four years later, at 18, Iida heard his first Christian sermon, from a minister who had spent the entire war in prison. The story of Jesus Christ was new—but something familiar touched his heart.
“I heard about a man who died so that all of humankind could live,” he said. “I fell in love with that man that day—the man who took it all on himself. I was inclined toward that religion.”
The journey toward faith took some time for Iida, but after he graduated with a degree from Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo with a degree in English literature, the young scholar wanted a decidedly Christian education in the United States.
Before he enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Iida took a year of classes at Calvin, primarily to study Greek and Dutch. After Westminster, Iida returned to Grand Rapids to gain a divinity degree from Calvin Theological Seminary.
Iida was aiming toward the pastorate when differences of opinion over the work of the Holy Spirit led him instead to a career as a Japanese interpreter and translator for the U.S. State Department, which he began in 1964, working in various government capacities until his retirement in 1988.
“The State Department hires interpreters and approximately 27 of them have the title ‘Senior Interpreter’ because they do the highest-level work with the president, vice president and secretaries of state and defense,” said Iida. “I was privileged to have that status with presidents Carter and Reagan.”
Iida remembered his first major assignment—at the Seven Nation Summit in Tokyo with President Carter.
“I was given two 4-inch briefing books, all confidential, top secret. I had to know the contents and be able to articulate talking points for the president. Automobile exports and the oil crisis were the big topics at that time,” he said.
“Being an interpreter is like a high-wire act,” said Iida. “It is very dangerous ground. Everything is instantaneous. Interpreters are not to be intrusive, yet are the key to diplomatic relations.”
Another highlight of his interpreting career was with President Reagan and the Japanese prime minister. Iida recalled being drawn into a conversation about Christian hymns with the prime minister, which helped bond the relationship between the two world leaders.
Iida wound up at Calvin because of the urging of Christian Reformed missionary Henry Bruinooge ’44. While in Grand Rapids, Iida met his future wife, Isako, who was studying at the Reformed Bible Institute. The couple had three children and now split time between residences in Virginia, Arizona and southern Japan.
These days, Iida especially enjoys the time he and his wife spend in Japan, where the locals call him “sensei” (teacher) and he delights in talking about religion and sharing the gospel with those he meets. He is also writing his memoirs, focusing on his tenure as a presidential interpreter.
“In a way, after all of these years I am back to my first direction—as a Christian teacher and pastor,” he said. “The seed of the gospel is alive in Japan, and I will do my part for the Lord Jesus.”