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Book Review–Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara

Japanese culture has always been close to our family. My husband was born in Tokyo; his Irish-American parents had settled in the mountains outside the city after the Vietnam War. Though they returned to the United States when he was four, my in-laws have maintained a deep love for all things Japanese and their home is still elegantly decorated with oriental fabrics, paintings, and ceramics. My husband, who once spoke Japanese, no longer remembers the language but still loves the food; even now, our family’s celebratory meal for each child’s birth is tonkatsu–a breaded, deep-fried pork tenderloin with raw cabbage and rice. Our first dog was even Japanese:  the intelligent and lively Shiba Inu, bred by the Japanese to hunt small game. It’s been interesting to move to Alaska, too, which has a continuous stream of Japanese tourists who cross the Pacific in droves each winter to see the northern lights.

The-Smile-of-a-RagpickerYou can imagine my excitement then, when asked to review The Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara by Father Paul Glynn, SM (Ignatius Press, available here). A missionary priest who has spent the past 25 years in Japan, Fr. Glynn brings an authenticity to the book that I’ve rarely seen in books written about saints–or would-be saints, as is the case of Satoko Kitahara, a Japanese convert who literally gave her life to the poor after World War II. (Pope Francis just declared her Venerable in January.)

Like Hachiko, Satoko’s story is well-known by most Japanese. She was born into a wealthy family in Tokyo in 1929. Sheltered and so refined that her own friends called her “the princess,” Satoko embraced ancient Japanese religious and cultural traditions and proudly traced her ancestry back a thousand years to Bushido Warrior and Shinto priesthood.

This brings me to perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Smile of a Ragpicker: Fr. Glynn’s ability to truly immerse you in Japanese culture. He painstakingly explains Bushido (“Way of the Warrior”), a code of conduct based on the samurai class, in which the values of frugality, loyalty, and honor unto death are paramount. In the mid-1800s, Bushido extended beyond samurai to all of Japanese society; its emphasis on absolute loyalty to the feudal lord contributed greatly to the rise of Japanese nationalism prior to World War II. Father Glynn also explains how the ancient religions of Buddhism and Shintoism have infused Japanese culture with a keen sensitivity to beauty. Like G.K. Chesterton and Mother Teresa, Fr. Glynn clearly recognizes the goodness that God has gifted into the eastern religions for the sake of his Japanese children, even as he asserts the fullness of truth in our Catholic faith.

As a young woman, Satoko had passionately embraced Bushido, and unquestioningly supported Japan’s military decisions during the war. She even trained with a spear to fight off Allied invaders at just 13, and later quit school to work in an airplane factory. When the war ended, however, Satoko and most other Japanese experienced profound disillusionment as the crimes and atrocities committed by the Japanese military were revealed to be anything but honorable. Father Glynn captures the citizens’ sense of disillusionment and despair so poignantly; you deeply sense what it must have been like for the Japanese people to look around at their ruined country and realize that their deepest values had been betrayed by their leaders. Many lost the will to live and suicide was rampant. It’s with this backdrop that Fr. Glynn finally introduces you to Satoko, who made a conscious decision to reject the pessimism and despair so prevalent among her countrymen after WWII. Her sensitivity to beauty and attraction to purity instead led her to Catholicism.

One thing I love about The Smile of a Ragpicker is how Fr. Glynn uses Satoko’s correspondence to trace the evolution of her spirituality. She goes from a somewhat vain, self-centered young woman to a living saint, but the emotional and spiritual struggles she experienced in giving up her self-love and worldliness are detailed and to me, so inspiring. Father Glynn ensures that we see this young woman in all her imperfect humanity so that we can relate to her; Satoko is no distant, holier-than-thou saint, but a passionate young woman who must cooperate with God in the painful and lengthy process of sanctification. The message, of course, being that if she can do it, so can we.

The second half of the book chronicles the story of Ants Town, a commune of homeless scrap collectors (“ragpickers”) who eventually drew Satoko out of the security of her parents’ luxurious home and into a ramshackle hut with them to share their plight. Though Glynn does take some time to set up the story properly, it’s this information that truly makes the story sing as he describes the last few years of Satoko’s life and her profound impact on the ragpicker community and eventually, on the entire nation of Japan. Though I knew the heroine was going to die young (Glynn references it several times), I still found myself anxious to find out how the story was going to end–and regretful that the book was done when I turned the last page. Though not exactly light reading, The Smile of a Ragpicker is definitely worth the time you spend getting to know both Satoko and our Japanese brothers and sisters.


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God vs Overpopulation

“And God blessed them, saying : increase and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and rule over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and all living creatures that move upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

I recently travelled to Mississippi (for the first time) to visit my husband who is temporarily stationed there. On the second stretch of my journey, a flight out of Charlotte, my seatmate was looking for conversation.

He started with the usual litany: Are you coming or going? Have you been here before? What brings you down south? Are you married? Any kids?

My husband and I recently decided that when asked if we had any children we would answer honestly “We had a daughter but she died.

We did not make this decision lightly as the answer is unavoidably personal and makes many people uncomfortable, however, we felt it was necessary because she did exist and we hope that it will be a positive witness for being open to life. (I’ll do a separate post for this one day soon.)

I answered my seatmate honestly and continued, saying, “We hope she was the first of many and that we’ll have another one soon.” He callously told me that I might change my mind once I got one home.

*Cue the Holy Spirit*

I managed to not punch him in the face and in fact responded –I think – quite gracefully with, “I doubt it as my husband is the eldest of eight and I’ve wanted ten kids since I was little. There is no such thing as too many babies.”

“Except in places like China where they are overpopulated and overcrowded,” was his reply.

“Well,” said I, “My husband has been to China and though the cities are in fact quite populous, there are vast stretches of open countryside. Furthermore, I’m actually Canadian and we have the second largest country in the world with the population of Mexico City.” (around 36 million in case you were wondering)

At this point he changed the subject.

Still the thought of overpopulation danced in the back of my head. Children are not products that can be made and destroyed in response to supply and demand. They are living breathing human beings with eternal souls. Every child that comes into being is a direct act of God. To even entertain the idea that overpopulation is possible would be to say that it is possible for God to err. The problems we face in third world countries are due to poor distribution of resources and the problems looming ahead for the western world are due to a lack, not of resources, but of new people.

In 1797, Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principles of Population” in which he predicted mass starvation – by the year 1890 – as Earth’s population increased exponentially and food production remained the same. Paul Ehrlich forecast a similar fate in his book “The Population Bomb” published in 1968 wherein he claimed that millions if not billions of people would be dying of starvation by 1995. In 1994, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology said that farmers were using less than half of the world’s arable land and land conversions for urban development would use up less than 2%.

Fred Pearce has written books on what he calls the coming population crash you can read a little about his thoughts here. (be aware that this is a secular link)

From 1960 to 2009 average world fertility rates plummeted from almost 5 to 2.5. In countries, such as Japan, where the fertility rate is 1.2 in 4 generations they will have only one tenth of the population they have now. That’s 90% shrinkage.

The necessary replacement rate (to maintain a population) is 2.1 and many Western nations have fallen below that benchmark. Once a population’s fertility rates fall below a certain point it has been seen historically that that culture can never recover. Check out and the Population Research Institute ( )

While the world at large seems to have bought into the overpopulation myth, we as Catholics are called to be open to life. Have you ever had to deal with strangers (or family and friends) who feel your fertility rate is a cause for world panic?

“Saying there are too many children is like saying there are too many flowers.” -Mother Theresa