The Dorothy Day of Tokyo: the Japanese woman who gave up privilege to live among the ragpickers

Satoko Kitahara

Every so often one is reminded that being a Christian isn’t meant to be comfortable. The people who, by the witness of their own lives, constantly remind us of this unpalatable truth are the saints. Just when we have settled down and are feeling smug – like the rich young man in the Gospel who led a virtuous life and kept the law – the stark “Take it or leave it” message of Christ comes through loud and clear: the grain of wheat has to die before it will bear much fruit.

Someone who came to understand and embrace the real teaching of the Gospel, rather than the comfortable version we tell ourselves, and who is an improbable candidate for sanctity, was a young Japanese woman, Satoko Kitahara. Her amazing story is told in The Smile of a Ragpicker by Paul Glynn SM, published by Ignatius and available from Gracewing (US readers can buy the book here.)

What did I learn from reading about her life? First, that out of the horror of war and its aftermath good can come that can transform the misery to good. Second, that no one starts out with special advantages when it comes to learning the meaning of holiness. Kitahara (1927-1955) had to learn this lesson in her own short life. From a noble Japanese family which traced its ancestry back over 1,000 years, and having had an exclusive and privileged upbringing which emphasised all the distinctive features of Japanese refinement – love of natural beauty, music, poetry, theatre and exquisite good manners – she died at a young age of TB while living among the rag-pickers of Tokyo.

In her youth she had been influenced by the examples of courage in Japanese literature in which she was steeped, and by the young kamikaze pilots of the Second World War. As Glynn writes, the pilots’ “single-minded commitment fired Satoko’s patriotism and her determination to give her life for the same cause”. The defeat of Japan and the subsequent war trials of the disgraced Japanese generals who had led their country into war caused her huge disillusionment: “Three million Japanese and countless non-Japanese had died for a lie.”

Taking her younger sister to her convent school in Tokyo brought Satoko in contact with the Spanish missionary nuns who ran the school. Impressed by their dedication, she sought instruction in the Faith and chose to be baptised. At the same time she was becoming aware of the desperate plight of the homeless in Tokyo, firebombed out of their homes during the war and now living in hovels on bomb sites. A providential meeting with a charismatic Polish Franciscan, Fr Zeno, who told her of the life and self-sacrifice of Maximilian Kolbe, his superior in the Order, introduced her to the rag-pickers of “Ants Town”, families who made their living from collecting and selling scrap and other materials, and who were struggling to lead lives of dignity amid utter squalor.

Never in good health and thus unable to become a nun as she wished, Satoko came to see that her vocation was to live among the rag-pickers and share their lives. Like Dorothy Day in the slums of New York, she understood that material help was important but not sufficient: her vision had to be a spiritual one; she had to love the slum-dwellers for themselves, not just be their “benefactor”. Along the way she had her own “dark night of the soul” when she felt her life had been a failure. Yet her outward radiance and trust in God converted many who came in contact with her.

All Satoko had in her little shed where she died was her copy of the Gospels, her Missal and her Rosary, which she grew to love and which she prayed daily. She certainly lived the kind of radical Christian life of service that Pope Francis has tried to make the hallmark of his pontificate.