A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Prison Chaplain in Japan

A Memoir

by  Fr John Hill sm

Fr John Hill as a young priest in Japan

Fr John Hill as a young priest in Japan

Nara Catholic Church

Nara Catholic Church

During my long life here in Japan, apart from the ordinary Parish work which has been my main occupation, I have spent about 45 years as a Chaplain at a prison in Nara City. A couple of points I must make before I go any further. First of all, my work here is very different from what Chaplains do back in Australia. The main religion here is Buddhism and the inmates are naturally Buddhist or as they say when asked what their religion is “My family is Buddhist.” Christians are a rare commodity and needless to say, Catholics are very rare indeed!! Another thing. It is a ‘Juvenile’ prison, for men between the ages of 18 and 24 (roughly). I hasten to add that while it may be called a ‘Juvenile’ prison, the crimes for which they are committed are certainly NOT! Violence in various forms, robbery and stealing, – drugs can be quite expensive – rape (often in the form of gang rape), lots of murders too.

Today I would like to talk about one case history I had to deal with which for me was something that has left a lasting impression on my mind. I’ll give the person involved the name of Yamaguchi though that is not his real name.
Most of my interviewing was carried out in individual cells where inmates were put in solitary confinement for some misdemeanour they had committed – e.g. fighting, being slow in obeying an order, talking when they were supposed to be in silence, a general bad attitude towards everything in life. At any rate, one day after I had finished my round, I returned to the education office and wrote up my report.

John Hill and group

Group of Pioneer Marists in 1951
(L to R) Kevin Muldoon sm; Vince Mills sm; at the back, visitor Monsignor James Knox later Archbishop of Melbourne; then John Hill sm; Tony Glynn sm (front); and Lionel Marsden, founder of the Japanese Mission, (back)

The following week when I appeared again, the people there had some news for me. It appeared that when they went to see Yamaguchi, he refused point-blank to have anything to do with them. (He was that kind of person!). But he did express a strong wish to see me once more. Needless to say I was very happy to hear this, although of course I had no idea where it was all going to end. But I said I would most certainly go along to see him. Before doing so, I asked the officials what they had to say about him. They said that among other things he had caused a great deal of friction and unrest among the group he was attached to (they worked in the Electrical section). He was what you call in the ‘Yakuza’ language ‘the boss’ (they use the English word) the ‘Head Man’ (Yakuza is the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia in western countries). As I remember we used to say back in Australia “When he’d say jump you’d ask how high.”

So the next week I entered his cell as usual. After the ordinary amount of small talk I began by telling him what the officials had said to me back in the office. Yamaguchi came to the point immediately and replied that he wanted me to visit him each week and start giving him instruction. I, of course, was delighted to hear this, but I thought I’d give him the ‘cold shoulder’ for a while just to test him as it were. “Look,” I said “I’m far too busy to waste my time by talking to a no-hoper like you; I’ve so many other important things to do!” Making a show by looking at my watch. “I’m off!” “No,” he said, “I’m serious.” Looking at me straight in the eye, “I want you to come.”

After a few moments, I went on, speaking SLOWLY and DISTINCTLY: “Alright but I’m going to lay down one condition. When you leave this place you’ve got to be No. 1 in it. No. 2 – the deal’s off!” Just as slowly he replied “That’s fine with me, Sensei (teacher). I’ll be No. 1.” (i.e. a model prisoner) Obviously in a place like this there is no such thing as No. 1 or No. 2. A prison is not a school where you have a graduation ceremony with ratings and grades etc.

From then on I always included him in my visits to the cells. A comment about the word ‘instruction’. In Japan practically all the inmates are Buddhist. Christians are a rare commodity! Here there are clubs to which anyone is free to go to if they wish, e.g. Buddhist, Shinto – a distinctively Japanese Religion!

Fr John Hill sm during his farewell speech at Nara, March 17, 2012

Fr John Hill sm during his farewell speech at Nara, March 17, 2012

Usually I would get him to read a short text from one of the gospels, and I would speak about it. I’d make sure that it was something that could be easily understood, and how it could be applied to his own daily life. You will understand how the ‘Prodigal Son’ was one of his favourites. He had no trouble in seeing the point in that particular parable. My main object in all of this was to give him the spirit of hope, and the realisation that he could make a new start, and the realisation that his stubbornness and disruptive influence would get him no-where. Such was his nature that he went into action immediately, talking the officials into allowing him to have me come into his workplace and have a ten minute get-together with his group during their lunch-hour break. Where this would end up of course we’d never know, but perhaps in one of their number a seed may have been sown that would flower and bear fruit later on. God knows what He is doing! (I might add that much of my long life up here in Japan has been taken up with this indirect form of Apostolate, spreading the Good News of Our Lord’s message).

Further about my good friend Yamaguchi. The authorities noticed how well he took the news of his father’s death. They attributed this to what I had been saying about Christ’s life and death and resurrection too. Another thing, my experience – with many exceptions of course – is that most of the people in prison come from homes where there was something wrong in their family life. My impression is that Yamaguchi’s family was close knit. (As a matter of fact, later on I spent one night with them in their home!) But this ‘favourite uncle’, who he was always talking about, had been in and out of prison for a long time. His occupation was not the best either. He was a money dealer!

Nara-TempleAnd here we are now at Yamaguchi’s BIG DAY -Release. In Japan, close by the prison is a house where those just out can live for a while where they can get adjusted to the world outside. They are supervised, but they have a certain amount of freedom. It was round about Christmas time when Yamaguchi was released.

At that time of the year various groups gather at places where there are lots of people to raise money for worthy causes. (I might add that many people get their yearly bonuses at this time too, so it is a good time for them to show their generosity!). The Church co-operates in this project, and on one particular day our group – us and the Monks from one particular Temple nearby, - How is that for ecumenism! – were standing in front of the local train station close to our Nara Church. I had invited Yamaguchi to join us on this occasion, and there we were, shouting out with all our might, “Go-kyo ryoku” – please give us something for the homeless people, the earthquake victims, the tsunami victims in Indonesia – or whatever cause we were supporting that particular year.

Just at that time, several of the guards of the prison happened to be passing by on their way to have lunch at some restaurant. Suddenly one of them stopped and pointed over at us. “Hey” he shouted to his friends, “look over there! If it isn’t Yamaguchi! What are you doing here?” he said in amazement to our friend. A great big smile spread over Yamaguchi’s face as he said nothing but continued shouting, “money for the earthquake victims!” As far as I remember they didn’t co-operate, but laughing, continued on their way. But I’m sure that when they returned to their office they would have described in detail what they had seen.

When he had finished his time at this ‘half-way’ house, my friend returned to his home in Kyoto. I rang the priest at the Church nearest to where the family lived and asked him if he could look after my friend in any way, I would be very grateful. I offered to give Yamaguchi the address of the Church, but he replied that it was not necessary as his family’s home was in the same area and he knew the Church well. Eventually, he received Baptism. Looking back, I think he probably was received into the Church too early, without enough instruction. But that’s another story! Incidentally, he took the name of Maximillan, after St. Maximillan Kolbe, who also knew what prison life was like, and died a heroic terrible death in the hellish death camp of Auschwitz. He died a martyr, a living witness to his love for Christ.

Soon after he went home I was able to get Yamaguchi a job at a hospital run by a group of sisters. When his time came to leave he was given a very good report. He had been a member of the ‘Yakuza,’ a gang which is the Japanese Mafia equivalent. When he left prison he had removed a tattoo which covered the whole of his back. This is a sign of enrolment in the gang. This operation I believe is very painful and expensive. But he had it.
Two other items, one on the light side and the other one more serious. Maybe a year or so ago he came with his daughter to see me. He took me into downtown Nara so that I could give her a blessing. She had some form of trouble, physical or otherwise I don’t remember. His vehicle was what you call a ‘SUV’ I think (sports utility vehicle). Rather high powered. We had stopped at a red light, it began to change, we made ready to move on. As we did so, a young chap on our left thought he’d beat us, and started to jump out ahead of us. Yamaguchi san immediately turned and glared at him. I’d swear that every hair on his head stood up straight. I’d hate to have Yamaguchi san as an enemy! I might mention that among other things he has a black belt in Karate.

The driver wasted no time in putting his car in reverse and going back to where he should never have left in the first place! I thought it was all very amusing, but I made sure not to let the man sitting next to me see how I felt. I know that Yamaguchi is now very much changed from the person he was in the prison. But I think that from one point of view, you can say, “Once a Yakuza, always a Yakuza!”
When my friend goes to meet his maker, I like to think that Our Lord will be there, standing at the gate waiting for him, arms outstretched, with a great big smile on His face. “Welcome. Welcome home, Maximillian! You’ve no idea how happy we are to see you! Come on in. We’re going to have a great big party to welcome you home!” cf Luke 15/22-28. And he will come striding in manfully, the life of resurrection in his eyes and the shout of an extraordinary joy on his lips. “Tadaima – I Am Home!”.

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