From Privilege to Ragpicker: The Life of Servant of God Satoko Kitahara

The Smile of a Ragpicker is an example of the very best sort of saint’s story.

The Church holds up to us the example of saints to inspire us to strive for sainthood ourselves.

Those who could use such inspiration would be wise to pick up a copy of The Smile of Ragpicker, by Father Paul Glynn (Ignatius Press), best known for his book A Song for Nagasaki.

In Smile, Father Glynn tells the story of Servant of God Satoko Kitahara, a Japanese woman who became Catholic shortly after World War II. The daughter of a wealthy and prominent university professor, Satoko was raised as all Japanese women were at the time, to eventually be a good wife and mother. Until she found a husband, though, her parents encouraged her to follow her intellectual interests where they led her, and so she studied to be a pharmacist.

Her graduation, however, coincided with the end of World War II, a time of profound disillusionment, confusion and soul-searching for the Japanese. Like many disillusioned young adults, she found herself questioning all the assumptions she had — not only about her nation, but about life.

It was during this time of reflection that she traveled from Tokyo to Yokohama to see a friend and literally chanced upon Sacred Heart Church. In the left transept stood a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. There was nothing special about it. In fact, its quality was standard, even poor.

“This was the very first time I had seen a statue of the Blessed Mother,” Satoko later wrote. “Drawn, I know not why, to enter that church, I gazed on the statue, sensing the presence of a very attractive force that I could not explain.”

At this time, her younger sister went to a school run by the Mercedarian Sisters. Mother Carmel, the principal, said at a commencement Satoko attended, “God in his good providence has brought you to this school.” What was this “good providence”? Satoko wondered.

Weeks later, Satoko visited the Mercedarian superior, Mother Angeles, and asked her about the meaning of life. Thus began weeks of catechesis, during which she found answers to the existential questions that had gnawed at her heart since the war’s end.

This ended with her receiving the sacraments of initiation, starting with baptism on Oct. 30, which that year was the Solemnity of Christ the King, and culminating in confirmation on All Saints’ Day. For her baptism, she took the name Elizabeth for Queen St. Elizabeth of Hungary, still renowned for the good she did for the poor. For confirmation, she took the name Mary.

Had Satoko faded into the Catholic woodwork, we would likely know nothing of her. The Lord had put it on her heart to serve, however, although she was unsure what to do. That is when God’s “good providence” put a Polish Franciscan brother into her path, time and again.

Brother Zeno Zebrowski had followed St. Maximilian Kolbe to Japan and stayed after Father Kolbe had returned to Poland.

Following his meeting Satoko, he took her to an encampment called “Ants Town.” This ramshackle collection of hovels made from scrap and salvage lumber and corrugated tin sat in a public park by Tokyo’s Sumida River.

Japan was economically devastated after the war. It had depleted all of its natural resources. The Americans had fire- bombed whole sections of its major cities, leaving millions homeless, children orphaned, mothers widowed and otherwise productive men maimed. The destruction also wiped out industry, so there were hardly any jobs.

People were destitute. To survive, many turned to an early form of recycling, whereby they would pick through garbage for anything salvageable to resell or turn into scrap, including cloth for rags. Hence the people who did this work were called “ragpickers.” They lived in communities such as Ants Town, but because the government considered these shantytowns havens for thieves, they would often conduct surprise raids, give residents a short time to gather their few possessions, and then burn the place to the ground.

Because of its location on otherwise desirable parkland, the Tokyo government authorities were always threatening to do just this to Ants Town. Its leader, Tooru Matsui, a known playwright-turned-lawyer, was always looking for ways to publicize the good Ants Town’s denizens did so municipal leaders would not dare destroy the encampment. This is how he became acquainted with Brother Zeno, who was a master at using promotion to help the poor.

In turn, this is how Satoko came to be involved with the community. Father Glynn compellingly writes of how this well-to-do young lady, fond of lovely kimonos and very Japanese in her love of cleanliness, transformed into a person who lived among her city’s homeless outcasts, wore simple clothing, and wasn’t afraid to get dirty in the service of others.

As with most people, becoming more Christlike did not occur because some “switch” flipped. Father Glynn shows how her “putting off the old nature” (Ephesians 4:22) was an agonizingly gradual and sometimes extremely painful process. She went wherever Jesus led her, however, “regardless of the consequences.” This book does a truly wonderful job in showing how that process worked in the Servant of God’s life and helps us to see how it can work in our own.

It also demonstrates through Satoko’s and Brother Zeno’s example how devotion to Our Lady takes us closer and closer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Finally, Satoko’s story compels us to examine our lives and to reflect on whether we truly are growing in sanctity (Matthew 7:21-23).

The result is that even before one is done with this page-turning book, the reader stands in awe of this saintly woman and what she achieved because of Christ. Indeed, within a year of her death, a major motion picture was released telling her life story; and in 1990, Satoko was named one of 50 women who “moved the nation most.”

Because he was a missionary in Japan for 25 years, Father Glynn is well-acquainted with the Japanese culture and mindset. As such, he ably helps Western readers understand that culture, from certain customs to phenomena such as the kamikaze. When necessary to provide context, he fluidly recounts stories from the nation’s history. The result is always interesting and helpful.

All told, The Smile of a Ragpicker is an example of the very best sort of saint’s story. Those who want to become saints themselves could do worse than to pick up a copy.


Brian O’Neel writes from Quarryville, Pennsylvania.