塩狩峠  Shiokari Pass  (Miura Ayako, 1968)

This novel tells the story of Nagano Nobuo from his childhood in Tokyo, through a gradual journey of self-discovery and acceptance of the Christian faith, to his death in Shiokari Pass in Hokkaido. The character of Nobuo is based on the true story of Nagano Masao, a Christian railway employee and former member of Miura Ayako’s church in her home town of Asahikawa, who was renowned for his Christ-like character and for sacrificing his life to save a carriage-full of passengers at the beginning of the last century.

The story begins when Nobuo is aged ten. It is the Meiji period and Japan is in the process of changing from a feudal society to take its place in the modern world. Nobuo’s family are of the former samurai class and his father now works at the Bank of Japan. They enjoy a comfortable life in Tokyo but Nobuo often thinks of his mother, whom he has been told died a few hours after he was born. The main influence on Nobuo’s life at this time is his grandmother whose view of life is based on the traditions and values of the past.

A short while after his grandmother’s death, Nobuo is surprised when his father returns home one evening with a woman whom Nobuo has never seen before. She is Nobuo’s mother who had been forced to abandon him and leave the family home for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Nobuo is horrified to hear that his mother is a Christian as his grandmother had often told him that these people drink human blood and eat human flesh and possess all kinds of magical powers to deceive people in order to destroy Japan. He is also unable to comprehend how a loving mother could have abandoned him for the sake of her religion.

Nobuo’s mother returns to live at the family home with her younger daughter Machiko. During their years of separation his father had secretly continued to visit her and had fathered this second child. Nobuo is drawn towards his mother’s gentle beauty and his sister’s outgoing character but feels excluded from their intimate relationship because of their Christian faith. Nobuo steadfastly refuses to participate or to show any interest in this foreign religion and feels betrayed when his father bows his head in prayer and joins his wife and daughter in saying ‘Amen’ before the meal.

These early chapters describe Nobuo’s admiration for his school friend Yoshikawa Osamu and his special affection for Yoshikawa’s sister Fujiko who walks with a limp and is often teased by other children. After Yoshikawa’s family move to the northern island of Hokkaido the two boys continue their friendship through letters and, despite the passage of time, Nobuo’s childhood memories of Fujiko come to represent his ideal of feminine beauty and charm.

It is when Nobuo is eighteen and in the final year of school that his cousin Takashi takes him out to celebrate his coming graduation. Takashi intends to take him to the Yoshiwara red-light district so that Nobuo can have his first experience with a woman. On the way Nobuo is torn between his desire to see this unknown world and a sense that this would be a betrayal of himself. It is the thought “Yoshikawa wouldn’t play around with women” that finally gives him the strength to turn and flee, leaving Takashi standing at the entrance gate. Soon after this Nobuo’s father dies. In his will he had requested a Christian funeral so Nobuo sets foot in a Christian church for the first time. The people there are neither as forbidding or as strange as he had imagined but the funeral, without the usual chanting of Buddhist sutras and offering of incense, appears to him to be rather lacking in feeling.

Nobuo takes seriously his responsibility to provide for his mother and sister. He takes a job in the law courts and works conscientiously. He is keenly aware of his inward struggles with sexual temptation but on the whole considers himself to be a good and upright person. But this confidence is challenged through reading a novel by a Christian writer based on the theme that “There is no-one righteous, not even one.” It is this novel that arouses Nobuo from his apathy towards Christianity. For the first time he asks his mother how she became a Christian and begins to think about the meaning of his own existence.

At this time Yoshikawa makes his first visit to Tokyo since leaving as a child. Accompanied by Fujiko he visits the Nagano home. It is a wonderful reunion for these childhood friends and Fujiko’s radiant beauty and purity make a deep impression on Nobuo.

Three years later, aged twenty-three, Nobuo leaves Tokyo for Hokkaido. His sister Machiko is married and living with her husband at the family home. Nobuo is now free to leave his job at the law courts and experience a different kind of life. He accepts Yoshikawa’s invitation to work in Hokkaido for a couple of years. From Yoshikawa’s letters he knows that Fujiko is bedridden suffering from tuberculosis of the spine with only a small chance of full recovery.

Nobuo takes a job with the railway company based in Sapporo. He visits the Yoshikawa home regularly and is struck each time by Fujiko’s cheerfulness and serenity. His feelings for her are clarified when the head of his department, impressed by Nobuo’s character and diligence, suggests an arranged marriage with his daughter. Nobuo realises that it is not just pity that he feels for Fujiko – it is respect and a deep love. He turns down the offer of marriage and determines to wait for as long as is necessary for Fujiko to regain her health. Yoshikawa, concerned for his friend’s future, attempts to dissuade him and also reveals that Fujiko is now a Christian, having been led to faith by the witness of a friend who continued to visit during the most infectious period of her illness.

Nobuo begins to read the Bible for himself. Having struggled through the first chapters of the New Testament, which did not appear interesting at all, he is then struck by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about the true nature of sinful thoughts and the challenge to love one’s enemies. Here is something quite different to the traditional ways of thinking that he had accepted from his grandmother and society around him.

One day Nobuo sees a man standing in the snow outside Sapporo station preaching about Jesus on the cross. The people either ignore or abuse him but Nobuo is transfixed. He invites the preacher to his lodgings and tells of his desire to follow Jesus’ teachings. The preacher asks if Nobuo understands that it was his own sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. This is too much for Nobuo who still considers himself to be a reasonably good person. The preacher challenges him to choose any one of Jesus’ commandments and to put it into practice day by day. This will reveal how far short he falls of God’s standards.

Nobuo reads the story of the Good Samaritan and the commandment to love his neighbour as himself. He remembers his work colleague Mihori who has recently been sacked for stealing an employee’s pay packet and determines to love Mihori in this way. He goes with Mihori to apologise to the head of the department and begs for him to be reinstated, saying that he will take responsibility for his future conduct. The result is that Mihori is given a job in the small town of Asahikawa north of Sapporo and Nobuo is transferred with him. Nobuo is dismayed that he will no longer be able to visit Fujiko regularly but, before leaving, declares his love for her and makes a proposal of marriage.

Far from being grateful for what Nobuo has done, Mihori is suspicious of his motives and accuses Nobuo of a condescending attitude towards him. In the face of this antagonism, Nobuo realises that, far from being full of love, his heart is full of resentment and hatred towards Mihori. He sees now that in his own strength he is unable to be the Good Samaritan. Instead he is the wounded traveller who needs to be rescued and it is Jesus who is the Good Samaritan. Nobuo begins to attend the local church in Asahikawa and is baptised.

During the next five years, Nobuo becomes well known as a Bible teacher and receives numerous requests to speak at various branches of the railway company throughout Hokkaido. Many turn away from their long-held prejudices against Christianity as a result of his life and character, but Mihori remains cynical and scornful. During this time Fujiko’s health improves to the extent that they are able to set a date for the formal engagement ceremony and make plans to return to the family home in Tokyo to begin their married life.

After speaking at the inaugural meeting of a branch of the Young Railwaymen’s Christian Association, Nobuo sets out with Mihori to return to Asahikawa and from there to Sapporo. It is the day of the engagement ceremony and the years of waiting will soon be over. The trains climbs the steep winding slope of Shiokari Pass. Suddenly there is a jolt as a coupling comes loose and the carriage begins moving backwards. In the panic that ensues, Nobuo tells everyone to stay calm and rushes to the outer deck of the carriage where he slows the carriage using the handbrake. A sharp bend is approaching and he knows there is only one way to avoid disaster. He throws himself onto the track and the train grinds to a halt over his body.

As a result of Nobuo’s act of self-sacrifice, many people including Mihori become Christians. The story closes with Fujiko and Yoshikawa visiting the scene of the accident. Fujiko remembers how Nobuo had spoken of his desire to live each day for God and his willingness to give up his life, but as she lays flowers on the track she collapses in tears of grief and her cries fill the bright, cloudless sky of Shiokari Pass.

Bible quotes which appear in this novel

There is no-one righteous, not even one. Romans 3:10
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:28
Love your neighbour as yourself. Luke 10:27
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Potential Areas for Discussion

  • Even before he became a Christian, Nobuo was a kind and thoughtful person. Do you think people like Nobuo need to think about God?
  • Let’s look at Romans 3:10 together. What do you think the word “righteous” means? What is the difference between being a nice person and being “righteous”?
  • Would you like to read the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)? What do you think you would have done if you had seen the man in the road?
  • What do you think of the two commandments in Luke 10:27? Might we be able to keep them if we try very hard?`
  • Nobuo tried very hard to love Mihori but found that he could not. So why do you think Nobuo decided to become a Christian?  What do you think it means to become a Christian?
  • Fujiko had a long illness and Nobuo died in an accident. Why do you think God allowed these things to happen? If something bad happens in your life, does it mean that God does not love you? What do you think John 12:24 means?

© Japan Christian Link  27/3/2004