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The Catholic Admiral from Japan

In his biography of Paul Claudel, Louis Chaigne recounts that the French diplomat and dramatist was a member of a small international society of Catholics whose only duty was to pray daily for one another. Among the number was Claudel’s friend in Japan, Admiral Yamamoto

Over the years I had read conflicting reports about whether the World War II Japanese naval hero had been a Catholic. Not long ago I read a short biography of Yamamoto, and nothing suggested his adherence to Christianity; in fact, he seemed to share his countrymen’s interest in Shintoism and Buddhism. Then, rummaging through a university library, I came upon something that cleared up the confusion. 

Severin and Stephen Lamping’s book Through Hundred Gates, published in 1938, is a collection of short conversion stories, most of them by people thoroughly unknown today. One of them was Admiral Yamamoto — but a different Yamamoto. 

It turns out that there were, at the same time, two admirals with the same surname. One, Isoroku Yamamoto, was the commander of the naval forces that attacked Pearl Harbor and that were defeated at the Battle of Midway. He died when his plane was shot down over Bougainville in 1943. The other admiral was Claudel’s friend, Shinjiro Stefano Yama-moto, who died in 1942. In addition to having a distinguished naval and diplomatic career, he headed an organization of Catholic laymen. By World War II he already had retired from the military. The following is his conversion story. 

Karl Keating

All grace comes from Almighty God. This is a truth we have learned from our catechism and which corresponds with my own innermost convictions. If it is true that every conversion is a manifestation of divine grace, I must confess that a retrospective glance over my past life will bear witness to this truth.

I was born on December 22, 1877, and attended the grammar school of Katase, where our ancestral home lies, a good hour’s train ride from Tokyo. When I reached the age of thirteen, I thought: My father has plenty of money; he will send me to Tokyo to attend high school there. Later on I shall become a [governmental] minister or perhaps a general. I was inspired, namely, with the same ambition that animated the rising generation at the beginning of the Meiji regime in 1868, when the world belonged to the brave.

So I kept on dinning into my father’s ears a plea for a chance at a school in Tokyo. However, he was dead against it — for one reason, no doubt, because I was an unruly creature who prided himself on the great esteem his father enjoyed among the village folk and would not refrain from mischief. My playmates fared badly with me. Many a time I provoked them to tears and played unpleasant tricks on our neighbors, till they gave me a good jacketing and remonstrated with my father.

Instead of going to school I played truant and roamed about in the thickets and forests. Paternal advice was of no avail. The upshot of the matter finally was that my father took recourse to a bamboo cane in order to restore normalcy of action and behavior in his offspring. Under such circumstances it was not surprising that he thought me unfit for school life in Tokyo. Moreover the deportment of my older brother in that city had only served to discredit the good name of my father and so made my hopes of ever seeing Tokyo dwindle even more. The disappointment my father suffered was still green in his memory, which explains his reluctance and fear to expose me to similar temptations.

About this time — it was early in summer — a European who came from Tokyo to Katase called at our home with the purpose of renting a house for a summer resort. The gentleman, as we heard, was principal of an intermediate or secondary school in Tokyo. A house was rented out to him, and he returned later in the summer, but this time with about a dozen other Europeans, all dressed alike in a black suit and wearing a black tie. They were School Brothers of Mary.

At his first meeting with them my father immediately inquired about their occupation, and they answered, “We educate and train the youth and that very strictly. Whoever is accepted must follow the daily schedule to the dot and may leave the house only at certain times. We insist on punctuality. On three days a week English is spoken and on three days French.”

My father was very much astonished but at the same time very much pleased to hear about their insistency on discipline and the teaching of foreign languages. For me the whole thing spelled a delightful summer vacation. The teachers were comparatively young, full of life, and very cheerful. 

We frequently went to the beach together, where we swam or sailed in boats. We passed our time fishing in the rivers, climbing the mountains, catching butterflies in the rice fields and soon became true pals. With the advent of September the Brothers left for home. Then my father, who had begun to admire the Brothers, took me to Tokyo and entrusted my education to them. That is how I came to attend the then small but now famous intermediate school  Gyosei, which means Morningstar.

As contrasted with our times, the pupils were much older. Most of them were descendants of families with an overstrained patriotism, who were still steeped in prejudice against Christianity, the much hated Yaso-doctrine. And I felt just like the rest. I detested the  Yaso-religion from the bottom of my soul, and quite naturally there resulted a clash of opinions with my teachers, who were challenged by my attitude. However, since I lacked every religious training, I could not cope with them, and in the course of time I was even compelled to admire them.

By and by I began to learn of their private and spiritual lives, how every one of them submitted to his superior with unconditional obedience regardless of nationality, age, or education. I saw how they loved us more than themselves, how they followed a strict rule, made vows, and actually lived up to them. An explanation for all this could only be found in their religion.

When this first dawned upon me I felt quite certain that in due time I could not escape the alternative of becoming a Catholic. All along I had been determined to make good in life by loyal service to God and my country, and Divine Providence guided my steps and helped me to carry out my firm resolutions.

My charted course was by no means easy to follow, since my father happened to be counselor [elder] at a famous Buddhist temple. At home we had a  Kamidama, a Shinto shrine, and likewise a Butsudan, or Buddhist altar. Every morning both were venerated according to ancient family tradition. Naturally I hesitated to disclose my intentions to my father until one day I mustered enough courage to do so. 

I wrote him a letter with the request that he permit me to take instructions in the Catholic religion. When my father received the letter he was so dumbfounded and upset that he immediately hurried to Tokyo and pressed me to banish such thoughts from my mind. The Yaso-teaching, he maintained, was dangerous to the state. I should not jeopardize my career from the start and allow myself to suffer shipwreck.

No matter what arguments I advanced, he insisted on his refusal, and since I failed to convince him — because probably I felt reluctant to assert my claims against the will of my father — I went to bed inconsolable and wept the whole night. This happened in the spring of 1893.

But God did not forsake me. During the summer vacation, when I came home to my parents, I ventured to ask a second time. My father remained firm as ever. Finally I made a further attempt, and with all the eloquence at my command I brought up my case again. I believe the Holy Ghost must have loosened the tongue of a poor, unbaptized heathen.

I reasoned as follows with my father: “You know that I am growing up and thinking about my future. As things are I am not sure whether I shall not at some time or other stray from the right path and bring disgrace on you. But it is my firm conviction that I can guard my soul from wrong only as a Catholic. That was the reason for asking your permission to investigate the Catholic faith. You refused. On the other hand, you value honor above everything else. Should I, therefore, ever dishonor myself, I refuse to take responsibility for my conduct.”

Thereupon my father answered, “Very well, you have my permission. You may write to the principal.”

Immediately after vacation, in September, I began taking instructions. On Christmas Eve of the same year I was baptized in the chapel of the Morningstar school. I was the first person to be baptized there and the first Japanese whom my teacher baptized. I assume I need not mention that there was no change in my outward appearance. It was simply the will of God that manifested itself in my life.

Since that memorable Christmas night more than forty years have winged their flight into eternity. But while still a youngster, I joined the navy, took part in three battles, and, strange to say, was more than once miraculously saved from death. I was entrusted by the government-it was the first time in the history of Japan-with a message to the Holy Father. 

I also had the singular honor of accompanying the Crown Prince, now the ruling Emperor [Hirohito], on his trip to Europe, and, to fill to the brim the measure of happiness, it was my privilege to spent the rest of my lift at the court of my sovereign.

I am now happily married for over thirty years. God blessed our union with several children. He did not take into account my sins and frailties. I am walking in the sunshine of his mercy. 


The 1996 edition of the Catholic Resource Directory and Buyers Guide is out. Its 556 oversized pages list 3,500 organizations. So far as we can tell, no heterodox groups are listed. 

Categories include apologetics, apostolates, associations, book publishers, used-book dealers, canon law organizations, catechetical publishers, dealers in Catholic art, Catholic bulletin board systems, chancery offices, chastity education groups, Christian clothing distributors, colleges, computer software, counseling services, diocesan directories and newspapers, family organizations, fraternal societies, homeschooling resources, journals, magazines (including  This Rock, of course), Marian groups, media groups, missionary organizations, prolife groups, and many more.

The Directory is edited by Frank Pollicino and may be ordered by calling (516) 366-4928. The cost is $12.00. 


 

Catholic Answers needs volunteers at its San Diego office. We have many light clerical tasks and heavier shipping tasks that cry out for more hands. If you live nearby or plan to be in the area for an extended time, please consider helping out.

We just said good-bye to Jim Sullivan, who was in the area for a month, visiting his daughter, and who came to our office every day, while his daughter was at work. Jim helped eliminate a backlog of work in the shipping department.

One of our long-time volunteers — she has been helping us for several years — is Alice Cook, who devotes several hours weekly to filing letters. (We get lots of letters.)

Two new arrivals, Bill Snodgrass and Denise Meisner, have been giving about a day a week to Catholic Answers. To them, to Alice, and to Jim we express our deep thanks, and we hope other readers of  This Rock may find themselves in a position to follow the examples of these good folks. 


 

The leader of the largest church in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley says that half of the 7,000 people who turn out to hear him preach each Sunday are former Catholics whom he tried to woo away from what he calls “a false religion.”

John MacArthur wants “to lead Catholics to Christ.” His pointed statements, which some think are out of sync in an ecumenical era, have been noticed by the secular press, where he has been written up with some regularity. 

MacArthur is not just a pastor. He is the president of The Master’s College in Newhall, is host of the “Grace to You” radio program, and is widely known for his books and lectures.

Fr. Gregory Coiro, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, notes that MacArthur “has a long history of Catholic bashing.” He reports that Catholics whose relatives left the Church for MacArthur’s denomination were taught that they would go to hell unless they left Rome.

Coiro says, “It’s kind of cheeky [for MacArthur] to say they want to ‘lead Catholics to Christ,’ considering we kept belief in Christ alive and well for 1,500 years before an Evangelical Protestant ever set foot on the planet.” If Coiro can be faulted, it would be for generosity. The Protestant Reformers would not have recognized their own religion in today’s Fundamentalism or Evangelicalism, which arose only in the nineteenth century.

MacArthur says “the Roman Catholic Church is as fertile soil for evangelism as any because they already believe in God, the deity of Christ, his death and Resurrection.” He claims he does not attack the Catholic Church from the pulpit. Perhaps so, but he does so in his books. 


If you have read the fourth chapter of Catholicism and Fundamentalism, you know about The Conversion Center, an old-line anti-Catholic organization located in Havertown, Pennsylvania.

In a recent newsletter Donald F. Maconaghie, head of The Conversion Center, explains that “the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope, as held by the Roman Church, and as understood by the people, means, practically, that the Pope cannot and does not make mistakes in any of his utterances or statements; and that therefore that every statement of every Pope is true, and contains nothing but the truth, because the Pope cannot make a mistake-he is infallible! In actual practice, every activity of mankind is made by the Roman Church to come within either faith or morals, and thus the supposed Papal Infallibility covers everything!”

Here is an elderly man who, for decades, has held himself out as an authority on “Romanism,” yet he still doesn’t understand Catholic teaching about papal infallibility — not a hard doctrine to learn. Is he, when it comes to the faith he condemns, simply uninterested? Is he too wrapped up in antagonism to care about the facts? 

Let’s be thankful for small favors. If Maconaghie had had the sense to oppose Catholicism’s real teachings, if he had bothered to learn from Catholic sources what the Church teaches, he might have done more damage over the years than he has. His willful ignorance has protected Catholics who otherwise might have fallen for his confusions.  Deo gratias!

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