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.
born in 1935...
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.
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.
in Tokyo during
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.
in that period that you had the second meeting crucial to your decision to
become a Catholic.
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.
happened after the war?
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.
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.
were you when you were eventually baptized?
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
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