This site uses cookies...
Cookies are small text files that help us make your web experience better. By using any part of the site you consent to the use of cookies. More information about our cookies policy can be found on the Terms of Use.

The only home on the way

· A history of a family conversion in Post-Second World War Japan ·

Today Misako, the daughter of an important Japanese diplomat, is a lively old-age pensioner who lives in Tokyo. She speaks excellent English and makes her way through the traffic-jammed streets of the great metropolis by bus. She met me with admirable punctuality in a café near the Kourakuen metro station. Since it was a Sunday she had given me an early-afternoon appointment; she had had to go to morning Mass in the church she has been attending for the past 60 years. Misako, however, is not a cradle-Catholic; rather she was born a Buddhist. Hers is the story of a special conversion, the result of a decision that she knows was her destiny, as she is eager to stress, a destiny that has the faces of three figures: a woman religious, a soldier and a saint.

You were born in 1935...

That’s right, here in Tokyo. My father was a diplomat. Before the Second World War Japan did not have many ambassadors in the world, but it had one in Singapore where I grew up. Then in 1943 we returned to Tokyo where I studied at a Catholic convent school. I therefore chose a Catholic university, where I was deeply influenced by the personality and charisma of an extraordinary English woman, Mother Elisabeth Britt.

Why was she extraordinary?

She was a woman overflowing with charity, which for me is the true sign of hope. We were living in difficult times, immediately after the war; it was easy to succumb to despair. She, instead, succeeded in passing on to us great positiveness. She was a woman motivated by great faith and with a lofty ethical sense. She believed blindly in the possibility of achieving lasting peace between the nations even though we were in the midst of a cold war. The war had of course ended but in Tokyo destruction and wretchedness still prevailed. The Tokyo we know today was born only after the Olympics in 1964.

Were you in Tokyo during the war?

During the war my father took me to Hakone, a small town in the mountains near Mount Fuji. I even saw the aircraft flying over us the day they bombed the capital. After the bombing we went to visit our house that had been completely razed to the ground. The horrible thing about these air raids was that although they were concentrated in certain parts of the city, areas that were not their direct targets were also hit; and ours was the only house in the neighbourhood to have been hit full blast by a bomb. I was a little girl and it made a deep impression on me. All the other houses were left standing except for ours. I immediately felt I was a survivor.

It was in that period that you had the second meeting crucial to your decision to become a Catholic.

Every now and then my mother and I would pay a visit to the ruins of our destroyed home. One day we met an American soldier who was sitting right in front of the rubble that remained of our house. He had lost his way so we went up to him and asked him whether he would like to have tea with us. My mother spoke English and was very glad to exchange a few words with an American soldier. In the end we discovered that he had studied at Yale and was a Catholic. Round his neck he was wearing a little chain with a cross. At the time I had not yet been baptized but the fact that I went to a Catholic school and recognized that sign as something we had in common made me feel close to him. In fact that small cross was a great symbolic bridge which united two distant peoples, separated by oceans and by the war but united in the search for a deeper truth about the meaning of existence. In short it was an icon of hope. I recall that this soldier made an excellent impression on my mother. He was a simple and modest young man. They spent the entire afternoon chatting. That he was a student was something else which at the same time both surprised and cheered us. We had in fact been convinced that only Japan sent university students to war; we thought we were the only ones prepared to sacrifice the young minds of the country for the good of the national cause. For this reason we were deeply comforted. We realized that basically we were not as different as, on the contrary, we had believed.

What happened after the war?

My father was in Shanghai and we had had no news of him for at least six months. Then one day we saw him appearing in front of the house with a bag on his shoulder. We had almost lost all hope. It was such a joy to embrace him again. My father was a culturally open person. He was a Buddhist but had had a direct experience of Christianity when he was in America where he studied for a while at Clark University in Massachusetts. He had been an exchange student. He lived with a Protestant family and so began to go to church services but he was not in any way interested by Christianity. The family with which he was staying would take him to church on Sundays, in the attempt to teach him the language better. When they got home, my father would be obliged to write a summary of the day’s homily for practice. He told me that this was his first encounter with the Christian religion which is why, since it was a sort of homework, he did not cherish an excellent memory of it. On the contrary, he associated Christianity with something that had been a great nuisance (she laughs). Basically who could blame him? He had experienced the Gospel as a scholastic obligation, a sort of mnemonic exercise. Obviously he could not have grasped its authentic message. This reminds me of the many young people today who live their faith drearily, precisely as if it were some kind of homework. I believe that in our time the problem is not the dwindling number of the faithful but rather the lack of people who can transmit the newness of the Gospel message in a language close to everyday life. I therefore feel infinite admiration for this new Pope: he is able to speak in a spontaneous and direct way and when he speaks to he crowds he succeeds in touching individual consciences as if he himself were calling each one of us into question.

Have you ever come across the Kakure Kirishitan, the Christians who are the heirs of the devout who were forced live a hidden life during the persecutions?

I know that some communities still exist in Kyushu, in southern Japan, especially on the smallest islands. With the end of the persecutions many resumed their practice of religion openly, others remained hidden. Yet it is hard to say whether the latter succeeded in passing on the faith to their children for, in the meantime, after the war, financial recovery and immigration to urban centres depopulated these islands. The majority of the Kakure Kirishitan communities came from a social class of farmers and fishermen who were financially and socially underprivileged, rather like the early Christians. However I know that they used rice and saké for their ceremonies instead of hosts and wine. In the course of the centuries this religion underwent a process of indigenization, merging Christianity, Buddhism, the Shinto religion and, above all, many popular beliefs. Nevertheless, perhaps also thanks to modernization, they were able to open themselves to society and, who knows, even to watch the election of the new Pope on television. The latest conclave was broadcast on all the channels and featured on many talk shows. They made lengthy live broadcasts with experts in the subject who explained what a conclave was. Many Japanese have never heard of a conclave. Yet in spite of all it was an event that achieved a notable public response. Among other things, with regard to the Kakure Kirishitan, the fourth centenary of the expulsion of missionaries from Japan and of the prohibition of professing the Christian faith occurs in 2014. We pray that on this occasion the Pope will be able to visit our country, so rich in history and in martyrs – although we know it will be very unlikely, given the Holy Father’s numerous commitments.

Tell me about the third meeting which led you to the Catholic faith.

When I was still in my first year at secondary school a sister told us that we would be able to see the relic of Japan’s most important saint with our own eyes. I had come across Francis Xavier in my school books – it was 1949. Four hundred years had passed since in long ago 1549 the great Jesuit first set foot in Japan so I was not expecting to find such a well preserved relic. I had read the stories about the body of Francis Xavier; they said that years after his death, when his body was examined to check on the state of its corruption, people pointed to the abdomen. It was still bleeding as though he were alive. But I think these were only tales. When Francis Xavier’s arm arrived at the Church of Kōjimachi we went to see it. I remember that it was his right arm, the very arm he used for baptizing thousands of people. I had a great shock. I thought of all the Christians whom I knew: they were all heirs of the act made with that arm. The fingers were so well preserved that they looked like the fingers of an elderly man and certainly not like those of a four-centuries-old mummy.

How old were you when you were eventually baptized?

Twenty-two, I was in my last year at university. My mother was baptized too, following my example, when she was then 70 years old. In spite of all, in the end even my father decided to be baptized, but only when he was at death’s door. It was 1994. He said he was afraid of not finding anyone in the next life, because by then all the family had become Catholics (she laughs).

In Japan the end of the Second World War and the decline of the cult of the Emperor produced an enormous spiritual emptiness. So it was – thanks too to the arrival of so many missionaries – that Christianity experienced one of its most fruitful seasons since the time when, four centuries earlier, it had arrived in these lands. Misako (portrayed in a photo with her granddaughter) is a daughter of this epoch.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 27, 2020