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SAPPORO, Japan — Each year, many in Japan participate in Obon — a 500-year tradition of honoring their ancestors that has evolved into a family reunion holiday.

Only days after the Obon festival here, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered to show respect for their ancestors in a different way — by participating in the dedication of the Sapporo Japan Temple.

The 48,480 square-foot building, located next to Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, is the LDS Church’s third temple in Japan and 151st worldwide.

On Sunday, President Russell M. Nelson dedicated the new temple, which will serve some 8,000 Latter-day Saints who live on the island of Hokkaido and in Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of the main island of Honshu.

Each temple “stands as a symbol of our membership in the church, a sign of our faith in life after death, and as a sacred step toward eternal glory for us and our families,” said President Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Bin Kikuchi, chair of the local temple committee and the first president of the Sapporo temple, said some have wondered why the church would build such a large temple to serve a relatively small Latter-day Saint population.

But he does not wonder. “This area is strong in faith,” he said, noting that LDS Church membership “will grow very rapidly.”

LDS missionaries first arrived in Sapporo in 1905, but the mission closed in 1924 and did not open again until after World War II. Missionaries returned to Hokkaido in 1948.

Born in Horoizumi, Hokkaido, Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi, an emeritus General Authority Seventy who now lives in Utah, literally returned home for the dedication of the temple.

Elder Kikuchi, who would become the church’s first native Asian to be called as a general authority in 1977, watched the church gradually, steadily grow in Hokkaido.

He noted that in 1949, Elder Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Japan to dedicate the first building acquired by the church after the war. In that prayer, Elder Cowley prophesied that "temples would dot the land of Japan."

“That apostolic blessing was fulfilled,” Elder Kikuchi said, noting the two other temples in Japan — the Tokyo Japan Temple, dedicated in 1980, and Fukuoka Japan Temple, dedicated in 2000. “We are so thankful. The Lord is so kind and merciful.”

The temple, he said, will be a “profound blessing” in Sapporo.

The evening before the dedication, some 150 youth — wearing happi or traditional dress for festivals — celebrated their LDS heritage.

The theme of the program — “Becoming the Light of the World” — was not only intended to help the youth look back with appreciation to the many Latter-day Saints who have pioneered the work in northern Japan, but also to help the youth understand that they, too, can be a light to the world, said Kazusa Iwamoto, chair of the temple cultural celebration committee.

The youth ended the program by performing a special birthday message for President Thomas S. Monson, who turned 89 on the day of the Sapporo Japan Temple dedication.

President Nelson told the youth that their performance was a special gift to President Monson.

For many generations, prophets have foreseen this day, when temples would dot the earth, he said. “We have the exciting privilege of being part of this Latter-day work when the gospel will go to every nation.”

Members in Japan now have all the blessings of the gospel, “right here in Hokkaido,” he added.

“You are part of history,” President Nelson said. “You will live to see many other great and marvelous events. Stay well. Keep the commandments. You will have a lot of joy.”

Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told the members of the Sapporo Japan Temple district that their faith brought the temple to Hokkaido: “This temple is truly a gift from the Lord."

There is much to celebrate,” he added. “We celebrate the wonderful history of the church in Northern Japan and the bright future of the church here as well. Our future is brighter because of this beautiful new temple.”

sarah@deseretnews.com @SJW_ChurchNews