Giving her life for the ant people
Why do you come here?” the elders known as “Professor” and “Boss” were asking.
“Because I love you and want to help you,” Satoko Kitahara replied.
It was a confrontation that they had replayed many times in this squatter’s village in Tokyo in the years after Japan’s ruinous defeat in the Second World War.
She had faced their scorn ever since coming to volunteer in this place called “Ant Town,” located in the damp, dirty harborfront area of Tokyo, where the poorest of Japan’s poor, mainly women and children, struggled to eke out an existence.
The more comfortable of Japanese society dubbed it “Ant Town” because they said its inhabitants were even less significant than insects.
Born and raised in the poverty of Ant Town, Professor, a wizened elder, and Boss, an ex-convict, were its recognized leaders. They were proud that they had been able to help the so-called “ant people” form a community and cling to their only surviving possession—their dignity. They were suspicious of charity and harbored a particular disdain for Christians, whom they considered hypocrites.
Strange love affair
Satoko Kitahara was both a Catholic convert and a daughter of privilege. Each night after working in Ant Town, she returned to her parents’ elegant suburban home, known to the locals as “Flower Manor” on account of its beautiful gardens. Once there, her mother would comb her clothing looking for vermin and then sterilize it all in boiling water.
Whatever they thought of Satoko’s strange love affair with the ant people, her parents never tried to get in her way. In a society that severely restricted opportunities for women, Satoko’s parents had seen to it that she was well-educated and cultured.
By the age of 21, she was a pharmacist and an accomplished pianist, and she spoke several languages. During the war-time mobilization, Satoko worked on a warplane assembly line in a Tokyo factory, though it is not known how she felt about Japan’s imperial ambitions.
In 1949, a year before coming to Ant Town, Satoko, then 20, had converted to Catholicism from the Shinto faith of her parents.
Her conversion started when she followed a group of Mercedarian nuns into a church building and became transfixed by a statue of the Blessed Mother and wanted to know more about her. Several months later, she asked to be baptized.
She had been introduced to the sorrows of Ant Town by a missionary; what she saw left her feeling hollow and unable to sleep. “How utterly blind I have been,” she confessed. “I am ashamed.”
Almost immediately, despite the scorn of Professor and Boss, she began working with Ant Town’s children, many of whom were orphans and victims of abuse and broken homes. “I’ll be your big sister,” she told them. “I’ll be on your side and I’ll fight for you.”
She spent her days with them, raking the garbage bins, and picking out rags and junk to sell. She was true to her word, serving as their friend and teacher; she even started a nursery for the littlest ones of Ant Town.
The name Satoko Kitahara was indelibly impressed in the Japanese imagination in 1950, during her first Christmas in Ant Town. She organized a slum children’s pageant., complete with a reenactment of the first Christmas, which attracted coverage from the national news media.
People the nation over were captivated by the woman they called “Mary of Ant Town.” Her work had made the Blessed Mother a household name in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country.
Though she fortified herself spiritually by going to Mass daily, after several years of working in Ant Town, her health failed her, and she was stricken with tuberculosis. But when Professor visited her in the hospital, Satoko told him that she was still determined to leave her parents’ home and become a permanent resident of Ant Town.
“I cannot be sleeping here at home in these warm surroundings when so many people believe I have given myself to the poor,” she said. “I am no true rag-picker, 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.”
“For the first time I believe you really love us,” Professor replied. Finally, she had earned his grudging respect. But, before coming to live there, he said firmly, she must first regain her health.
When she had recovered some months later, she returned to find that a married couple had taken her place as the children’s teacher and friend. Many of her former students had left, and the Ant Towners seemed not to have missed her.
She felt crushed and alone. Still, she thought, this turn of events must somehow be a part of God’s design and calling. “I will leave Ant Town and not return unless God calls me,” she told Boss and Professor.
That night, the two Ant Town elders sat down and reflected on Satoko’s religious convictions. “If that God inspired Satoko to help us,” mused Boss, “I want to have that God, too.” Shortly thereafter, both Boss and Professor converted to the Catholic faith they had once so despised.
In the meantime, Satoko had joined the Mercedarian religious order. But, on the day she was to leave for the convent, she was again stricken by a tuberculosis-related illness and was hospitalized in critical condition.
Boss, Professor, Satoko’s parents, and her doctor got together and agreed that only Ant Town would cure her. They were right. She moved into a simple room in Ant Town and decorated it with icons of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. She recovered and worked several years more.
Boss and Professor believe she literally gave her life to save the people of Ant Town. For years, the city had hounded the ant people, trying to drive them away, to rid the city of the “eyesore” of poverty and to use the property for a municipal park. The city fathers had no plans for eliminating the social ailments that caused the ant people to have no jobs and no homes; they only wanted to disperse them.
Those efforts had always been resisted by Boss and Professor, who knew that only when the poor were banded together in community, as they were in Ant Town, would they have a chance to determine their own destinies and fight for justice.
In 1957, making what they said was their last offer before forcibly evacuating the ant people and destroying Ant Town, the city officials said they would sell the ant people a permanent parcel of land, if they could raise the astronomical sum of 25 million yen.
Satoko prayed day and night to the Blessed Mother that the money would come. She encouraged others to join her. “Pray hard and God will hear your prayers,” she assured them.
But the money never came. Before Boss and Professor went to tell city officials that they could not raise the required amount, Satoko gave them her rosary and promised to pray before her statue of Our Lady of Lourdes while they met.
“Remember, Professor,” she said, “long ago, I promised my Lord that I would lay down my life for Ant Town. That moment has come.”
When Boss and Professor arrived at the meeting, they were surprised to see the leading city official holding a copy of the book Satoko had written in 1953, “The Children of Ant Town.” He announced, unexpectedly, that the city would agree to accept a much smaller, almost token amount for the property.
Ant Town had been saved. Three days later, Satoko died. She was 28 years old.
Satoko Kitahara modeled her life after the life of Jesus Christ. She humbled herself to become a servant of the poor and of life.
Even though she suffered their rejection, she still loved the people of Ant Town and willingly gave her life that they might be able to lead more dignified, meaningful lives.
With her life, she professed a faith that her sufferings were a part of the burden that Christ bore for her and for every man and woman. “Because Christ gave His life for me,” she once said, “if He wishes me to give my life for Ant Town, I would do so.”
Originally published in The Evangelist (April 1, 1993)