ひつじが丘  Hitsujigaoka  (Miura Ayako, 1966)

It is 1950 and a strikingly beautiful girl called Hirono Naomi joins the final year of Hokusui Girls High School in Sapporo as her family have recently moved from Hakodate. The other girls are eager to become friends but she remains aloof, making no attempt to participate in lessons and returning home immediately the school day has finished. She avoids all questions to do with her family but the girls hear that her father is a Christian pastor. As this is a mission school where a pastor is held in great respect, they cannot understand why Naomi should try to hide this.

At the end of the first term she receives a letter from the English teacher, Takeyama Tetsuya aged 26, taking her to task for her negative attitude at school. She makes no reply. A few days later, however, on a trip by herself to the seaside she sees her classmate, Sugihara Kyoko, who is there with her elder brother Ryoichi. Takeyama Tetsuya is also there as he is a friend of Ryoichi from when they were at university together.

Ryoichi makes an immediate impression on her. He appears to have a childlike innocence which enables him to express what he is thinking and feeling. Naomi feels that here is someone that she can believe in. It is Takeyama, however, who accompanies her home at the end of the day. He rebukes her severely for her behaviour at school. When she makes no reply, he slaps her face. He apologises but Naomi thanks him for what he has done. She tells him that her life seems meaningless and that she does not want to live the life expected of a pastor’s daughter. Despite their kindness, she feels detached from her parents and even despises their faith.

As a result of talking with Takeyama, Naomi determines to take a more positive attitude at school and she becomes good friends with Sugihara Kyoko. There is one girl, however, who has a great dislike for both Kyoko and Naomi. This is Kawai Teruko, the daughter of a wealthy family, who is envious of Naomi’s beauty and makes fun of Kyoko saying that the small restaurant which her mother runs is a brothel. Before graduation Naomi visits Teruko’s house to try to improve their relationship but is sent coldly away.

After finishing high school, Naomi attends college in Sapporo, Kyoko begins work in an office and Teruko goes to university in Tokyo. Through her friendship with Kyoko, Naomi meets Ryoichi again who declares his feelings for her. He tells her that he used to be a member of the Communist Party but that he withdrew when some of his friends were jailed and tortured. As a result he began drinking to forget about his cowardice. But he tells Naomi that he would completely change if she returned his love.

Ryoichi hears that the newspaper for which he works as a journalist will transfer him to Hakodate and he visits Takeyama to tell him of his decision to propose to Naomi before he leaves. Takeyama is taken aback as he knows Ryoichi’s past affairs with many women. Knowing what kind of person he is, Takeyama asks him whether he is able to make Naomi happy. Ryoichi replies, “I don’t know about that … but I know that I need her.” He pleads with Takeyama not to tell her about his past and promises that there will be no more problems with alcohol and women. If he is with Naomi, he is sure that he will be able to fulfil his ambition to become a great painter. Hearing this, Takeyama is unable to tell him of his own feelings for Naomi and of his plan to make a formal proposal once she had finished college.

Ryoichi has been reluctant to meet Naomi’s parents, saying he has an aversion to anything religious and that God would surely scold anyone like him if they went to a church. Before leaving for Hakodate, however, he meets them briefly. Naomi’s parents rarely speak critically of anyone so Naomi is taken aback when they express doubts concerning his character.

At New Year, Ryoichi visits Sapporo and is persuaded by Naomi to visit the family home. He is uncomfortable talking with Naomi’s father who seems to be able to see right into his heart. Her father tells Ryoichi that Naomi is still a child who knows nothing of the world. She is not ready for marriage and when the time comes, they would prefer for her to marry someone of the Christian faith. Naomi is furious and, after Ryoichi leaves, she tells her parents that the most important thing for her is to be true to her feelings. Her mother points out that feelings can change and her father tells her that there is more to love than just feeling “in love”. Real love means seeking the best for the other person and requires a willingness to forgive and to keep on forgiving. Her father tells Naomi that Takeyama has approached him to make a proposal of marriage and asks her to compare the two men. During the past year Takeyama has been attending church and Naomi had glimpsed him one Sunday morning still kneeling in prayer after everyone else had left. Naomi replies sarcastically that such an upstanding man has no need of her whereas Ryoichi cannot live without her. For the first time in his life, he shouts at his daughter and calls her a conceited fool. Naomi runs out of the house.

On his way home Ryoichi is involved in a traffic accident and Naomi spends the night at the hospital with him. When he is well enough to return to Hakodate, Naomi proposes that she should accompany him on the eight-hour train journey. Her parents refuse but on impulse Naomi jumps on the train with him as it draws out of Sapporo station. She intends to return immediately after seeing him to his lodgings but Ryoichi develops a fever and she stays two days to look after him. She does not contact her parents despite a telegram asking her to return as her mother has been taken ill. On the third day Ryoichi is well again but asks her to stay just one more night. Despite her objections he persuades her to sleep with him telling her that wedding ceremonies mean nothing when two people truly love one another. This marks the beginning of their “married life” together.

After several weeks, Naomi’s father sends her belongings and a letter in which he reproaches himself for having failed to bring her up more strictly. They had thought that their daughter would understand and follow their way of life simply by seeing their example. He says that their home will always be open to them and prays that God will guide their life together. Naomi cries when she reads the letter but does not reply.

During their first few months together Ryoichi is kind and attentive but then begins to return home late and is often drunk. He tries to paint but is unable to find inspiration. He gives vent to his frustration and Naomi comes to see the selfish and often violent side of his nature. After eighteen months, Ryoichi visits his home in Sapporo on a business trip. There he meets Naomi’s old classmate, Teruko, and discovers that his mother has for many years been Teruko’s father’s mistress, which explains Teruko’s spitefulness towards Kyoko. Despite this revelation, Ryoichi adopts his usual manner towards women and flirts with her. Teruko is flattered and sees an opportunity for hurting Naomi.

Meanwhile Takeyama has been unable to stop thinking about Naomi. On a study visit to Hakodate he phones Ryoichi at his office and arranges to visit them that evening. He finds Naomi alone in a room which lacks even basic furniture. Ryoichi is late and the two of them eat together. Before the meal Takeyama prays and Naomi realises, “This is how life could have been if I had made the right choice”. Ryoichi returns home drunk and accuses Takeyama of wanting to be with his wife. After Takeyama leaves, Ryoichi throws an ashtray in Naomi’s face. She decides to leave him but in the morning she remembers her father’s words about forgiveness. She realises how naïve she had been in thinking it was easy to love someone. She determines to try again and that evening welcomes Ryoichi home with a smile.

On his next visit to Sapporo, Ryoichi meets Teruko again and spends the night at her apartment.

Several months later, Naomi discovers a letter from Teruko containing money in Ryoichi’s trouser pocket. She is disgusted and leaves for Sapporo to see Takeyama and ask him what she should do. Standing outside the door of his house, however, she sees that Kyoko is with him in what appears to be an intimate pose. In complete desolation she returns to Sapporo station where she sits on a bench staring at her muddy shoes. These seem to represent what her life has become.

From a nearby church she hears the sound of organ practice and is filled with an overwhelming desire to return to her parents and beg their forgiveness. Although it is late at night she finds the door is unlocked. As she opens the door her father sees her standing outside and, without putting on his shoes, rushes out to embrace her. Her mother rushes out still dripping from her bath to embrace her. She learns that they have left the door unlocked each night since the day she left more than two years ago.

When she awakes the following morning she finds that Ryoichi has followed her and is sitting at the foot of her bed. In front of Naomi’s parents he admits to his affair with Teruko. Naomi’s father asks Naomi if she will forgive him, reminding her of the forgiveness that she herself has received. Naomi thinks of the unconditional love shown her by her parents. She also thinks of her own weakness and attraction towards Takeyama. Despite this, she is unable to summon up any positive feeling toward Ryoichi. At this point Ryoichi, who has been coughing throughout the conversation, coughs up blood. Ryoichi’s mother does not want him at her home due to fear of infection, so it is Naomi’s father who nurses him through the night.

Ryoichi stays at Naomi’s home for four months and makes a gradual recovery. During this time he grows close to Naomi’s father, seeing in him the father that he never knew as a child. Ryoichi tells his friend Takeyama that his view of life is changing. In the past he lived for himself without any thought for others. He felt it was necessary to assert his own ego to become an artist. But at Naomi’s home he has seen a painting of Jesus on the cross by Georges Rouault which is full of truth and goodness and beauty. In comparison, his own pictures are worthless. Takeyama sees the change that is taking place in Ryoichi and decides to give up any lingering hope of winning Naomi back. He proposes to Kyoko who has been in love with him since high school.

Naomi’s attitude towards Ryoichi, however, remains cold and distasteful. Her father shares with her that he too had an affair in the early years of his marriage and that it was the forgiveness shown by Naomi’s mother that led him to accept her Christian faith for himself.

Teruko phones demanding to see Ryoichi now that his health has recovered. Naomi’s father advises him to meet her to make a clean break. She tells him to come to her apartment on Christmas Eve. Ryoichi is reluctant, as he has been painting a picture to present to Naomi that evening. He leaves promising to return very soon. Naomi sees that he is taking a bottle of whisky with him and tells him coldly to stay all night if he wishes.

Ryoichi resists all Teruko’s advances. He tells her that he now hates his previous way of life and asks for her forgiveness for the way that he used her. He shows her the last bottle of whisky she gave him still unopened. Each night these past months he has wrestled with his desire to open this bottle but he has resisted. He now tries to leave but Teruko is determined that he should stay the night rather than return to Naomi. She slips sleeping powder into a glass and persuades him to drink just one whisky for old times sake before he goes. He refuses more and leaves. Outside there is a thick fog and Ryoichi is unable to find a taxi. He has an overpowering desire to sleep and collapses in the snow. When he fails to return home Naomi tells her parents it is not worth waiting up for him.

Ryoichi’s frozen body is discovered the next day and brought to Naomi’s home. Naomi is filled with remorse and feels it was her coldness that led to his death. If only she could have spoken one kind word to him that evening. She lifts the cover on the picture that Ryoichi has painted for her. The figure of Ryoichi is kneeling at the foot of the cross looking up at Jesus for forgiveness. Naomi feels that she too must kneel beside him and beg Jesus for mercy. All who see the picture are greatly moved. Takeyama realises that he had always considered himself superior to Ryoichi but that he had been wrong. At the funeral Naomi’s father declares that all men are weak and sinful. In our pride we think of ourselves as righteous and judge others but this is what God hates. Instead God calls us to live our lives receiving his forgiveness and extending it to others.

Six months later Naomi is invited by Takeyama and Kyoko to visit Hitsujigaoka (literally “the hill of sheep”) in the countryside outside Sapporo. She watches the sheep as they graze and wander over the hillside. Ryoichi’s death has softened her heart and given her compassion for people, as she now understands that we are all weak and foolish, just like stray sheep. The pain of the past will always be there but both Takeyama and Naomi are aware of God’s hand in guiding them on their separate paths for the future. The novel ends on a positive note with Naomi gazing at a distant cloud which is shining in the light of the sun.

Potential Areas for Discussion

  • Naomi’s father said that love was more than feelings. What do you think? Would you like to read what the Bible says about love? (I Corinthians 13)
  • Jesus told a story about God’s love which is quite similar to Naomi returning home to her parents. Would you like to read it?  (Luke 15 The Prodigal Son)
  • Do you think that Naomi should have forgiven Ryoichi? Why is it often difficult for us to forgive people? Why couldn’t the older brother forgive the younger brother in the parable?
  • Naomi’s father said that we should not judge others because we are all weak and sinful. Do you agree? Would you like to read what Jesus said about judging people?  (Matthew 7:1-5)
  • Jesus told a parable about two people – one was a respectable man like Takeyama and the other was a man like Ryoichi.  (Luke 18:9-14 The Pharisee and the Tax Collector) Which prayer was God pleased with? Do you think even good people need to say sorry to God?
  • You can see “Jesus on the Cross” (1936) by Rouault on here.  How did Ryoichi feel when he saw this picture? How do you feel when you look at it?

© Japan Christian Link 27/3/2004