A Japanese Gentleman

By Fr Leo Baker

Phone calls for me from Japan are rare, so I was surprised recently to receive a call from Mrs Murakami, the wife of a man who was my catechist from 1951 to 1954. She told me that he had died, aged 88. That phone call marked the end of a 55-year friendship with a man of remarkable personality and one of the finest gentlemen I came to know during my 35 years in Japan.

In 1951, after 18 months in Japan, I was living in Kamogawa, a coastal fishing port, where fishermen, farmers and shopkeepers made up most of the population. I had been appointed there after just a year of language study, only 27-years-old, to try to establish a new mission where none was there before.

It seemed like an almost impossible task. I could only hope, trust and pray that God would make something happen. Soon God did just that, in a remarkable way. Mr Murakami Sensei appeared out of the blue at my door one day. He had come from Yamaguchi, hundreds of kilometers away, to look for his mother. She had called me a few days earlier and I knew the farmhouse where she was staying. It seemed she had a falling out with her family and left home, traveling aimlessly by train until Divine Providence let her finish up at the end of the line in Kamogawa.

Both Mr Murakami and his mother told me they were recently baptized. They were both most enthusiastic about their newfound faith and were anxious to share it with others. They came several times in the next two weeks for Mass in a room in my house and stayed to chat afterwards.

I soon learned that Mr Murakami was a high school teacher, a most intelligent man who had graduated from the highly prestigious Tokyo University. He was taking some time out from teaching. I enjoyed those first meetings and chats with him so much that I said jokingly one morning after Mass, ‘I wish you could stay and work with me and help me to try to get things going here.’ ‘Do you really mean that? I would love to stay here and help you.’ ‘When could you start?’ I asked. ‘Today,’ he said.

So began a 55-year association and friendship. He went home with his mother but soon came back to stay in a little two-room cottage that the Columban Superior in Tokyo had built for a future housekeeper or catechist, before I went to Kamogawa.

In a short time working together, we were able to form a troop of high school boy scouts, with Murakami as scoutmaster. He helped me gather groups of primary school children for Saturday and Sunday school classes and women, suitable and willing to teach, seemed to turn up from nowhere. Most baptisms during the first five years or so were from among these young people.

Within a year of Murakami’s coming, there were so many young people coming to the mission that my house couldn’t hold them, so he helped me plan and negotiate with local builders to erect a small church, which was blessed and opened in time for Christmas 1952.

With so many young children coming along, it seemed obvious that a kindergarten would be a good idea and a fruitful means of apostolate, so Murakami with his knowledge of school affairs, smoothed the way with local authorities for us to build and open Sacred Heart Kindergarten on the mission property, with about 50 pupils and five or six young women teachers.

When I first met him I noticed he had an artificial leg and walked with a crutch. I learned that he had been wounded in New Britain, the largest island of Papua New Guinea, during World War II, when he had left a bunker to fetch blankets for his superior officers. It was hard for me to imagine such a peaceful, gentle, well-educated man as even having been part of the Japanese army. He never showed the slightest animosity towards Australians and frequently spoke apologetically about things the Japanese army had done to Australians.

Kamogawa mission covered a wide area of towns, villages and farm hamlets. I had a bicycle to get around. Mr Murakami found a way of keeping me company on rides all around the district. He had a little motor fitted to his bicycle to help him pedal with only one leg. He would leave his wooden leg behind, strap his crutch to his bicycle and off we would ride. The locals used to watch us racing each other up the hills. We were inseparable. Wherever I had to go Murakami Sensei would come along and be my interpreter, teacher and guide.

After three years he needed to go back to high school teaching, partly because I was unable to pay him a decent wage. So, regretfully we had to part, but not before I was able to find a teaching position for him in a new high school being established by the Marist Brothers in the Columban parish of Kengun in Kumamoto.

He came back to Kamogawa to marry Clara, one of the first young women we had instructed together and prepared for baptism. He took Clara back to his new home in Kumamoto, about 1000 kms from Kamogawa, but they kept regular contact with Kamogawa Church.

In 1994, 40 years after fare-welling Murakami from the Kamogawa mission, I returned there for a nostalgic visit and reunion with some of our earliest converts.

I suspect that Murakami and Clara had a lot to do with organizing that wonderful reunion and the great heart-warming reception that those friends from 40 years ago gave us when we arrived back in Kamogawa. I was happy and amazed to see how strong the bond of friendship still was among those people who had played together at the mission as youngsters.

We continued to correspond, at least for Christmas. He would send me a generous donation, saying it was in gratitude, though I felt I owed at least as much gratitude to him. I think we were both right. We were so dependent on each other in those early years that neither of us could have achieved what we did without the constant help and support of each other.

Mr Murakami’s ashes now lie buried and honored in the Kamogawa Church cemetery that he and his wife helped pay to have fenced. He also arranged the hedge, small garden and granite monument, making it a place where he, Clara and other founding members of the mission could be buried together in a common plot. I sometimes dreamt of opting to be buried there myself, but now I am content with knowing that my ‘co-founder’ is there to keep the memories alive.

You may write Fr Leo Baker at St Columban’s, PO Box 752, NIDDRIE, VIC 3042, AUSTRALIA