According to the Japanese concept of courtesy, smiles are essential. A smile says, “I’m all right; you’re all right. It’s all good.” A smile is an innately powerful means of influencing things for the better, be it a moment, a gathering, a room full of strangers, or someone we have known all our lives.
Though the war was over, Japan in the late 1940s was a place of few smiles and not a lot of peace. “The eyelids of a samurai know not moisture” went an old proverb. But less than a century after the dissolution of the samurai, the Japanese people were grieving deeply. They had just begun to process how the world now worked and how little effect courtesy and smiles really had when weighed against the realities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Moved by an “Indefinable Emotion.” Among them was Satoko Kitahara, a young woman of privilege. She was descended from both samurai and Shinto priests, and raised in a Shinto household within an aristocratic family whose parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. The grounds of their upper-middle-class home on the outskirts of Tokyo were so beautifully planned and maintained that locals referred to it as the “Flower Manor.”
Born on August 22, 1929, Satoko grew up dreaming of becoming a concert pianist. But when she went into Tokyo to work as a machine operator during the war (where her health was negatively affected), she put away that ambition and instead pursued a college degree in pharmacology.
It was a sensible degree but not a calling. Like many of her generation, Satoko was working through the sense of restless disillusionment and disorientation that comes when the world changes suddenly, drastically, and forever.
In 1949, while visiting a friend in Yokohama, Satoko happened to see a man enter the Church of the Sacred Heart and felt compelled to follow him. Inside, she found herself standing before a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. The statue was unremarkable and yet, Satoko later wrote, she became overwhelmed with an “indefinable emotion”—a sense that if life had any meaning at all, she would find it here.
The parish was served by Mercedarian sisters from Spain, and Satoko went to them with questions. Soon after, she undertook a serious study of the Catholic faith. Initially drawn in by the mystery of the Eucharist and by the Virgin Mary, she grew to experience great joy and peace in prayer.
Such a Beautiful Smile! A few months later, Satoko was baptized. After learning of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and her dedication to the poor, she insisted, “I’m taking that name!” Noting the radiance of Satoko’s smile after her baptism, one of the sisters who had taught her said, “You have such a beautiful smile! Will you make a promise for Jesus’ sake, on this day, to smile whenever you can?” Beaming with happiness, the young woman agreed. She became devoted to the Rosary and took Mary’s name at her confirmation. Now Satoko Elizabeth Maria, she planned to become a Mercedarian sister herself.
The day she was set to enter the order as a postulant, however, she came down with a raging fever and a resurgence of the lung problems she had suffered while operating the lathe. It was tuberculosis, and Satoko was informed that her illness would put an end to her dreams of a religious vocation.
Finding Joy as a Ragpicker. Only twenty years old and too ill for employment, she met a Franciscan missionary who, seeing the Rosary she wore at her waist, introduced her to a riverbank settlement of homeless and impoverished Japanese, many of them children. The place was named Arinomachi, meaning “Ant Town.” It earned this name because its inhabitants were cast-offs who were considered “lower than ants.” But these poorest of the poor also exhibited an antlike industriousness. They managed to eke out the barest of livings by ragpicking—going through garbage bins looking for anything that might be eaten or sold in order to hold a body together for one more day.
Satoko quickly gravitated toward the children, many of whom were orphans or cast-aside victims of abuse. “I will be your big sister,” she told them. She had no plan at all, only smiles and encouraging words. Within a month, though, she had the children performing in a Nativity play for the community—an event that was covered in local newspapers, which called her “Mary of Ant Town.” But each evening, Satoko would leave Arinomachi and return to the Flower Manor, where her not-quite-approving mother would check her for lice and boil her clothing.
As Satoko’s commitment to the people of Ant Town grew, she would join them in their work of ragpicking, all the while using her influence and growing notoriety to bring a small chapel and classroom to the encampment. After several years, however, a few of the more prominent Ant Town residents were accusing her of hypocrisy. They suspected that she felt pleased with herself for visiting the riverbank each day while still being able to return to her warm bed at night.
This criticism—coming as it did from among the poor she served—stung her. While hospitalized during a flare-up of her tuberculosis, Satoko prayed for guidance and got her answer. She told her mother that when she was stronger, she would become a resident of Ant Town. “I am no true ragpicker; I am only a part-time butterfly who finds joy in working. I give nothing, I take all. . . . I want to work and suffer with them, to rejoice with them as one of them.”
The Children of Ant Town. We learn that at around this time, a sympathetic friend suggested to Satoko that it might be helpful to the people of Ant Town if she would write a small book “from the heart” about the community and her work there. Satoko did not want to write about herself, but her spiritual advisor thought it was the best way to stir the public conscience as to the very real needs of the people among them.
Satoko began her book, The Children of Ant Town, by sharing the innate longing to serve that had existed within her even as a child and how her conversion to Christianity seemed to strengthen that interior sense of “calling.” Satoko wrote that as she grew into a life of prayer that featured daily Mass and a fervent devotion to Our Lady and the Rosary, she searched for meaningful service for the sake of Christ. That’s what eventually brought her to Arinomachi and the people there. The main body of the book, however, focused on what life was like in Ant Town, especially for the children who lived there. They were full of potential, she said, but were held back by a lack of the rudimentary needs—good food, healthy shelters, books, and teachers.
Satoko’s book became popular, and her gentle witness and ever-present smile were given further exposure as newspapers began to cover her and the community to which she had dedicated her life. Most importantly, it brought attention, and material help, to the little village.
Setting Her Tent with the People. From that time until her death, Satoko Kitahara “set her tent” with the people of Ant Town just as Jesus had done with us. She lived with them, ate with them, worked, laughed, and grieved with them. And she did all of it with a sense of joy grounded in faith and with the smile she had promised for the sake of Jesus.
When the city decided the waterside property could be put to more profitable use, they declared that Ant Town must disband. The residents’ only hope was to come up with the assessed value of the land—25 million yen—to prevent the small community from being displaced.
Satoko told the representatives of Ant Town, who would soon be meeting with city officials, “Long ago, I promised my Lord that I would lay down my life for Ant Town. That moment has come.” In a 1993 article on Satoko, the writer David Scott tells us what happened when her friends arrived at the meeting:
They were surprised to see the leading city official holding a copy of [Satoko’s book]. He announced, unexpectedly, that the city would agree to accept a much smaller, almost token amount for the property.
Ant Town had been saved by the attention Satoko’s book had received and by her faithfulness to the people. Three days later, Satoko’s words came true: she had laid down her life for the people of Ant Town, and now the time had come for her to pass on to the Lord. She died on January 23, 1958, at the age of twenty-eight.
The Power of a Smile. Holy women and men seem to understand the transforming power of the human smile. “A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul,” wrote St. Thérèse of Lisieux in her Story of a Soul.
Satoko Kitahara’s smile extended even into her diary. Toward the end of her life, she wrote, “Because of my great joy, tears splashed all over my prayer book. Luckily, I had a big handkerchief with me!”
Satoko died as she had lived: with a joyful smile. Her last words were “How good it is” as she thanked her mother for a simple drink of water.
Elizabeth Scalia is editor-at-large for the Word on Fire Ministries as well as a Benedictine oblate and the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.