Wuhan: Cherry blossom reminds us that life is fragile

A catholic in Wuhan writes for ICN about the situation in the city at the centre of the Covid-19 Coronovirus infection.

In September 1996, at the parish church in Hiratsuka, Japan, I met Kintaro Koura-san for the first time. At that time he was 79 years of age, a fit man who cycled three miles to the church each morning. His broad smile revealed another side of his personality, a kindness and friendliness that endeared him to young and old within the parish.

A request from me to do some gardening led to a pleasant arrangement with Koura-san. He had the use of a small piece of land near the river, a short distance from his home, a precious area of cultivation where many others had also marked out their spaces many years earlier to grow vegetables. During the next year I cycled twice a week to this crack of ground in the urban landscape, a fertile space squeezed between a line of factories and the edge of the Sagami River.

Here Koura-san and I planted, weeded and harvested what nature offered. A tea break also formed part of our afternoon schedule. As the weeks went by and as the seasons changed, our conversations also moved, his recollections gradually bringing us on a journey to his place of birth, his carefree years growing up on the remote Goto Islands off the Nagasaki coastline, islands that were once home to Japan’s hidden Christians, dedicated people who kept their faith alive through 200 years of persecution, a time when they had no direct contact with the wider Church.

At 22 years of age Koura-san’s life on the Goto Islands was sharply interrupted with the news that Japan’s war effort in China needed new recruits. He had no choice. He was enlisted. In 1938 setting out from the Goto Islands to far-flung China must have seemed like a journey to the ends of the earth.

In the vegetable garden our tea break conversations gradually unveiled a life in China that can only be described as traumatic. A long way from home, the random lottery of Chinese bullets claimed the lives of many of his colleagues. A war that began in 1937 and become part of World War II eventually wrestled its way to a grinding halt. Japanese soldiers were notified that hostilities had ended. Their final undertaking was to find their own way home.

Koura-san eventually arrived in Japan. His onward journey towards home brought him initially to Nagasaki, a stunned landscape, a place that probably reflected his shattered emotional interior. Urakami Cathedral, the biggest church at the time in Asia-Pacific, was barely recognisable in its pulverized appearance, its site a short distance from the centre of the explosion that scorched its place in history.

As if to show that Christian faith is rooted far deeper than the foundations of even the finest cathedrals, the first rays of hope for Koura-san awaited him as he crossed the sea to the Goto Islands. In a setting where communication had ceased for the final three years of the war, his arrival to his home was poignant. Following an absence of seven years he crossed the threshold of his home to find both his father and mother waiting for him. Overcome with emotion, they revealed to him that for seven long years they had walked one hour to their local church every day to attend morning Mass and to pray for his safe return, the final three years endured as neighbours claimed that the absence of letters from China indicated that he was no longer alive.

The vegetable garden was the unlikely place for the telling of Koura-san’s story. It was also the location for the celebration of his 80th birthday, an occasion attended by friends from the nearby plots, the assembled group enjoying fresh vegetables cooked on a sizzling tray resting on bricks above a simple fire.

In the summer of 1997, I said farewell to Koura-san, to the vegetable garden and to the conversations that had brought us through the contours of his life, experiences that had seen his heart stretched in so many directions, going to the depths and discovering the place where God would gradually begin to lead him back to a wholesome and sacred place in life that many of us can merely dream about.

In 2003 Koura-san had a stroke. Following two happy years in a nursing home in Hiratsuka, he died, a man who had found peace because he was open to how God seeks out the lost and the brokenhearted.

The twists and turn of life eventually brought me to China. Since 2001, I have lived in Wuhan, the city by coincidence where Koura-san was based as a soldier all those years ago. One does not need to live in China for very long to realise that Chinese people perceive the war as a recent event. Occasionally the older generation will share their personal experiences of that time.

About 15 years ago, while having lunch at the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Hanyang, 91-year-old Sr Zou Wenbin spoke about one of her experiences of the war. One afternoon Sr Zou and another sister were returning from St Columban’s Cathedral to their convent, a walk of about 10 minutes. Close to their convent they were stopped by two Japanese soldiers. The soldiers enquired about where the sisters were going. After a few moments one of the soldiers noticed Sr Zou’s rosary beads hanging at the side of her habit. He stretched out his hand, lifted up the crucifix, looked at it and kissed it. In a time of war, the events of Calvary provided a moment of peace, the kiss of the unknown soldier paving the way for the sisters to continue their journey home. Perhaps the soldier expressed in gestures what he could not express in words, the human spirit pleading from its depths for a more meaningful life, one free from the brutal effects of remote and powerful decision makers.

In more recent years there has been progress in the relations between China and Japan. While there are unresolved issues, observers believe that a warmer relationship exists now than in previous years. A state visit by President Xi Jinping to Japan was due to take place in April. Concerns about the Coronavirus have led to a postponement of the visit.

The shared challenges of the Coronavirus for China and Japan at this time have actually produced some symbolic developments. A donation of masks and thermometers from the Japan Youth Development Association in January was accompanied by a verse from a 7th century Buddhist hymn printed on each box. The text translates as ‘mountains and rivers in different lands, wind and moon under the same sky’. This gesture of support by Japan for China was gratefully received. It shows that it is possible for bridges of understanding to be formed between neighbours, even when the shared history has multiple levels of complexity.

Many people would wish that events of the past 100 years could have been different, none more so than those who were closest to its harshest events. Turing back the clock is not an option. However, hope is always possible.

In Japan the arrival of spring is accompanied by an event that stirs the hearts of all Japanese people, the emergence of the cherry blossoms, delicate flowers that appear before the emergence of the tree’s leaves, providing people the opportunity to gather in their shade to eat, to talk and to reflect on how the brief visit of the fragile flowers reminds them that life is also beautiful but fragile.

In the 1930s the Japanese forces in China established a headquarters in the grounds of Wuhan University. In this setting, far from home, hundreds of young cherry blossom trees were planted, trees that have matured over many years and continue to bloom each spring, attracting tens of thousands of enthusiastic Chinese people to view their beauty. The blossoms usually appear at the end of March. This year it is likely that the flowers will be viewed only by the small number of people confined to their residences within the university.

As the blossoms remind us, life is fragile. As the line of poetry on the gift from Japan points out, we all live under the one sky. As Koura-san shows us from the depths of his life experience, God can bring new life from the ashes of the most complex of situations. While countries far away from China now enter the painful uncertainty of grappling with the Coronavirus, perhaps we should pray that this will be a shared medical undertaking for the benefit of all humanity, a time when we realise that we are one family living under a shared sky.


China 6: Low-income families ‘eat bitterness’ through Coronavirus emergency – www.indcatholicnews.com/news/39060

China 5: China: Wuhan’s International Catholic Community – www.indcatholicnews.com/news/39003

China 4: Housebound friends support each other by phone – www.indcatholicnews.com/news/38952

China 3: Praying and waiting for the tide to turn – www.indcatholicnews.com/news/38904

China 2: Knowing victims of Coronavirus infection – www.indcatholicnews.com/news/38851

China 1: A New Year like no other in Wuhan – www.indcatholicnews.com/news/38818

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