Last April (in this article) I wrote about Dr. Takashi Nagai and made reference to The Song of Nagasaki (1988), the brilliant biography of Nagai by Paul Glynn, a former Australian Catholic missionary to Japan. Because that was such an enjoyable read, I soon read Glynn’s next book, The Smile of a Ragpicker (1992).
The latter is the inspirational story of Satoko Kitahara, an outstanding Japanese woman who was born in 1929 and died of tuberculosis on January 23, 1958, while still only 28 years old.
MEETING BROTHER ZENO
Kitahara Satoko-san grew up in Tokyo as a privileged child of an aristocratic family, the descendant of samurai warriors and Shinto priests. While a teenager, though, her lifestyle was seriously thrown out of kilter by Japan’s entry into World War II. She began working in an airplane factory and lived in constant fear and anxiety. To make matters worse, during that time she contracted TB.
Four years after the war, though, Satoko-san was able to graduate from college. Later in 1949 she was baptized as a Catholic Christian. The following year she met Zeno Zebrowski, a Polish Franciscan friar who had gone to Nagasaki in 1930 with Fr. Maximilian Kolbe (whom I wrote about, here, last August). Satoko-san was greatly influenced by this 59-year-old man who had little education but a huge heart of love for needy people.
Brother Zeno worked tirelessly to help the injured and destitute people in and around Nagasaki after the explosion of the atomic bomb in August 1945. His meritorious activities became known throughout Japan, and in 1949 even Emperor Hirohito visited the orphanage Zeno operated in Nagasaki Prefecture.
Zeno then went to Tokyo and began a tireless ministry there, working on behalf of the 6,000 or more homeless and needy people who lived in Ari-no-Machi (literally, “Ants Town”). It was there that Satoko-san met him.
BECOMING A RAGPICKER
The slum section along the Sumida River in Tokyo was called Ants Town because of the thousands of people who lived there in such a small area and because of the constant activity in their desperate efforts to survive. Their means of survival was largely through collecting and then selling materials discarded in the trash. They were euphemistically called ragpickers.
Satoko-san sought to help the ragpickers, and spent time as a volunteer tutoring the children of Ants Town. But after hearing a man express his scorn for people like her who came condescendingly from places of privilege to “help” the poor and needy, Satoko-san examined her own life and work.
Consequently, according to Glynn, she came to this live-changing conclusion: “There was only one way to help those ragpicker children: become a ragpicker like them!” (p. 146). And that is what she did, much to the consternation and disapproval of her family.
Satoko-san spent the remainder of her much-too-brief life living in poverty as a ragpicker, and as Glynn emphasizes, she was widely known for the loving smile she had for the people she lived among.
BEATIFYING THE RAGPICKER
Two years ago, fifty-seven years after her death, Satoko-san was beatified by Pope Francis on January 22, 2015. Publically recognized for the “heroic virtues” she displayed in seeking to improve the lot of the people in Ants Town, she became the first Japanese person declared Servant of God by the Catholic Church.
How is it that so many of us do so little to help the needy when Satoko-san did so much? Moreover, how can people of faith be happy that beginning today the U.S. has a billionaire President who seems largely unconcerned about the plight of the poor and marginalized?