Friday, January 20, 2017

“The Smile of a Ragpicker”

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.
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.
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.
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?


  1. A good model of Theosis.

    1. Yes, that is probably an accurate description of the life and service of Satoko-san.

      For those who are not familiar with the term "theosis," here is the explanation from

      "Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature. Primarily a term found in Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theology, from the Greek meaning deification or making divine, theosis is a concept derived from the New Testament regarding the goal of our relationship with the Triune God. The terms theosis and deification may therefore be used interchangeably in this context.

      This does not imply that we become gods, but rather, that we are to become the fullness of the 'divine image' in which we were created (Gen. 1:26), i.e. a perfect reflection of our God, and become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). It may be related to the Protestant concept of sanctification but goes further with what may be expected in this life, emphasizing the element of our mystical union with God in Christ."

  2. Thanks for sharing a very unusual and inspiring story. This is, to my mind, an example of the truly or most radical Christian, the radical lover of other human beings who has become “all for others”—for others who are poor and severely marginalized.
    The phrase “preferential option for the poor” came, I think, from Christian leaders in South and Latin America in the past half century and has found its way into papal encyclicals and bishops’ statements. It is very difficult to practice. It takes a radical change of life. It is inspiring to know that there have been and still are those who hear and heed that vocational call.

    1. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Larry. There hasn't been much response to this article, so that makes your comments even more precious.

      Yes, as you indicated, Satoko-san is a good example of a radical Christian in the way I have used the word for decades, even though it is often misunderstood.

      Liberation theology's phrase "preferential option for the poor" is relevant to this connection. But perhaps Satoko-san is even more an excellent example of what it means to be and to live in solidarity with the poor.