The Surprising Riches of the Ragpicker

Fr. Paul Glynn’s "The Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara" is an excellent biography of a figure deserving to be better known in the West

Hagiography is oft not well served. In the case of Satoko Kitahara, however, she has been served perfectly by Fr. Paul Glynn, the author of The Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara—Convert and Servant of the Slums of Tokyo, recently published by Ignatius Press.

I suspect that most non-Japanese, such as myself, have heard little or nothing of the subject of this book. I also suspect they shall be as impressed as I am by the story it tells, and also as glad to be acquainted with the life so presented. And, given Pope Francis’ concerns for the poor and the marginalized, this biography and its message could not have come at a more apt time.

So, who was she? Satoko Kitahara was born August 22, 1929; hers was to be a conventional, middle class upbringing, stable and secure in its place in Japanese society and the wider world. Nevertheless, during her first years the nation was becoming the major power in Asia. Soon, however, it moved from national security to international instability as it propagated invasion and war as well as the war crimes that were hidden from the wider Japanese populace until after the war.

In fact, the book wisely starts not with recounting any idyllic childhood but by plunging the reader into the last desperate days of Japan’s fight against the Allies. One is left with a sense of communal madness: school girls brought to airstrips to bow at suicidal Kamikaze pilots while boys not much older than the girls bowing took off to fly planes carrying explosives straight into American ships.

As Japan began to lose the war there was a collective loss of any sense of balance. All was thrown into the last gasps of total war, with the Japanese code of honor refusing defeat, never mind surrender. It was a recipe for disaster, which was visited upon that nation on August 6, 1945, when a US bomber plane Enola Gay, set off from an airfield at Tinian with a payload that had until then been unimaginable, with consequences no nightmare could have prepared the citizens of Hiroshima for. When that city, and later Nagasaki (Japan’s most Catholic of cities), experienced something beyond any known human experience, the voice of the Emperor was heard for the first time on crackling wireless sets saying what just days before would have been unthinkable—Japan had surrendered.

Any biography of Kitahara could only make sense when placed fully in the context of these events and the mindset of the nation she came from at that particular stage of its history. Fr. Glynn does an excellent job of bringing the deeply personal into relief against the historic events then occurring around Kitahara. Her trauma and sense of displacement mirrored that of the nation as a whole. In short, in a matter of hours on an August day in 1945, her world shattered.

What comes next is as unexpected as it is moving. This is especially so when one considers that Kitahara, like the vast majority of Japanese, was part of a culture that had its own religious beliefs and viewed Christianity as something imported by colonizers from the West. In the days after the defeat of her homeland there was the sight of the despised ‘invading conquerors’ arriving with their missionaries. In view of this, the fact that Kitahara became a Catholic was miraculous in itself, with what happened thereafter proving even more mysterious.

The genesis of this conversion was as simple as it was curious. Almost by accident she entered a Catholic church and found herself gazing upon a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. By all accounts it was an aesthetically poor reproduction of the one at the world famous shrine; no matter, for this woman, born on the then Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was led by that ‘encounter’ to enter a convent. The Spanish nuns there exhibited none of the despair she saw all around her on the streets of Tokyo. Kitahara started to ask profound questions and soon found she was getting equally profound replies. Within months she was baptized.

Her conversion placed her at odds with her family; it was deeply personal and with it came the thought of vocation. She looked at the serene faces of the religious around her and sought to emulate them by asking to enter their order. If there is any lesson in the pages of this biography it is that God’s ways are not ours. Kitahara desired to go in one direction but Providence had other plans and these came in the person Brother Zeno—a character almost too incredible and strange for even fiction.

Brother Zeno had drifted around his native Poland, lost emotionally after the wars that had engulfed his nation’s fight for freedom in the aftermath of the Great War. Eventually he was brought into the presence of a fellow countryman who was to change his life forever; Maximilian Kolbe’s mentality was the antithesis of that future Brother Zeno found himself in. The later martyr of Auschwitz was by then a man on a mission and soon recruited Zeno to the same ‘madness’—similar to what another man had begun centuries earlier at Assisi. Unlike Kolbe, however, Zeno was to survive the war, having traveled to Japan before the war began and having lived there during it. Characteristically, he had come to Japan not knowing a word of its language, but, nevertheless, he set out to convert the whole nation. His impact on Kitahara, through a chance meeting one Christmas, was the sign she had been waiting for; here it sent her was to the poorest slums of Tokyo.

The displaced, dispossessed, and despairing all lived in a Tokyo shantytown named Ants Town. It was so-called because the unfortunate inhabitants were deemed barely human as they were seen scavenging the streets for odds and ends they could then sell for pennies, and thereby eat and maybe live for another day. There were whole families who had ended up living in this fashion, often due to circumstances beyond their control. This was little comfort to them, however, and did not stop the wider city populace from viewing all Ants Town residents as not much more than feckless criminals.

It was there with these despised people that Kitahara was to spend the rest of her short life, for on January 23, 1958, with rosary clutched in her hands, she was to die from kidney failure, aged just 29. During her few years at Ants Town, she was to become more than a well-meaning social worker or, heaven forbid, a ‘foreign missionary’. No, she was to grasp what some years later, on the streets of then Calcutta, a nun from Albania also understood, namely that it is in living with others and sharing their lives—the pains and the joys—that the Gospel is most effectively preached. Satoko Kitahara was a shining example of this.

Nevertheless, here was no ‘plaster cast’ saint; instead we are given the portrait of a young lay woman who suffered (both mentally and physically) and was misunderstood by most of those around her, and yet persisted through this unexpected Calvary towards the light of an Easter morn that she did not live long enough to see but which, by the end, was experienced by many of those who had encountered her. There were also a few who recognised that here was sanctity—the real thing. Kitahara lived for others and when she left them for good her memory endured and continued to contribute to the changing of lives for the better. In light of this, it is sobering to realise that when she died she had been a Catholic for just ten years.

Fr. Glynn, who is also the author of A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai a Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb (Ignatius, 2009), has done his subject justice. He has placed Kitahara in the context of her culture and history while bringing to it the insight needed to understand the very Catholic story at its centre. He has a genuine feel for the tribulations that she faced, both external and interior. What’s more, he writes with a good grasp of the material presented. Some of the explanations of Japanese words and idioms felt superfluous but this is a minor point; the book is as concise as it could be given the breadth of the facts set before us. The various characters that come and go from the narrative are marshalled in a timely fashion and the whole thing moves at a pace and with a depth that make it a pleasure to read.

In brief, The Smile of a Ragpicker is an excellent biography of a figure deserving to be better known in the West. Suffice it to say, on this occasion, in regards to Satoko Kitahara, hagiography has been very well served indeed.

The Smile of the Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara
by Paul Glynn, S.M.
Ignatius Press, 2014.
Paperback, 254 pages.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.