Friday, March 8, 2013

John Watanabe

"When you eliminate all thoughts about life and death, you will be able to totally disregard your earthly life. This will also enable you to concentrate your attention on eradicating the enemy with unwavering determination, meanwhile reinforcing your excellence in flight skills."
                                                                                         - from the training manual for Kamikaze pilots.

When I was first ordained in the Episcopal Church, I worked in a diocese that was small and somewhat understaffed, even by the standards of the contemporary church.  Hence, there was ample opportunity to become involved in diocesan-level work.  My first full year of priesthood I served on the diocesan budget committee, the editorial board of the diocesan newspaper, the Board of Examining Chaplains [the group that supervises the education of clergy wannabees], and was elected to the Diocesan Council.  As I was also the "Bishop's Chaplain", which was a kind of junior assistant to the diocesan bishop [in other words, I was his driver and general dogsbody], I spent more time at the diocesan house than I did in my two parishes [yes, I ran two parishes at the same time].

This meant that I would be handed remarkable responsibilities from time to time, including being expected to pick up the bishop's dry cleaning, getting the tires on his wife's car rotated, and serving as his adult daughter's date to a wedding reception.  Yeah, seminary didn't cover any of these things.

But one of the more interesting duties was serving as the aide to Masanao John Watanabe, the Primate, or Presiding Bishop, of the Episcopal Church of Japan, who was visiting our diocese for a month as part of our companion relationship with the Nippon Sei Ko Kai [the official name of Japanese Anglicanism].  One evening, before an Evensong at which Bishop Watanabe was to be the preacher [his English was almost perfect], we had occasion to speak of vocation.

As I was a young man, he was curious about my pilgrimage into the ordained life.  I told him of it, admitting that it really wasn't much of a story, and that I was more interested in his journey, especially as Christianity was hardly a common religion in the Japanese society into which he was born.  If I thought my pilgrimage story was dull before, it was about the realize its nadir when the bishop told me of his.

Watanabe had been born into a Shinto family, that series of rituals and practices that even many of its members hesitate to call a religion.  He was accepted into the Japanese naval academy during World War II and was in the process of being trained to be a navy pilot.  As the war began going rather poorly for the Imperial forces, the Japanese Navy changed its tactical profile to include suicide, or "kamikaze", pilots.  Watanabe was selected to be among this group and trained accordingly.

File:Chiran high school girls wave kamikaze pilot.jpg
"Nice knowin' ya."

All was going according to plan, the final result to be Watanabe's glorious death in combat, when August of 1945 interrupted all of the martial preparation.  I think I failed to mention that the kamikaze pilots were being trained in Nagasaki.

A few days after the second atomic bomb attack on Japan, Watanabe and the other midshipmen were pressed into duty to recover bodies, locate survivors, clear some rubble, and generally help in any way they could.  As they had already promised to die in combat, they seemed the most likely candidates to send into a radioactive wasteland.  It was during this time, realizing that the world had irrevocably changed into something more terrible than even six years of world war had known, that Watanabe observed the work of some Christian monks, working side by side with the midshipman and other volunteers; working where even the Buddhist monks refused to go.  The impression was such that, after the treaties were signed, the naval cadets sent back home,and with the MacArthur administration re-structuring Japanese life, Watanabe converted to Christianity, took the baptismal name of John, and studied for ordination.

He served in a variety of parishes, eventually becoming bishop of the Diocese of Hokkaido and later Presiding Bishop.  After being re-elected to multiple terms as primate, he "settled down" to spend a few years working as a missionary in the Episcopal/Anglican churches in Tanzania.  When Edmund Browning was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, he asked Watanabe, with whom he had worked as a missionary in Japan [Browning was fluent in Japanese], to serve as one of his presenters.

Bishop Watanabe died shortly before his 80th birthday of an unusual and aggressive form of cancer thought be to be related to his work in the ruins of Nagasaki.  At his funeral, bishops and other clergy from around the Anglican world came to pray and celebrate with one another, marking his extraordinary life.  Perhaps most telling was the presence of a dark, heavily bearded prelate from an area inside of Russia; an area once belonging to Japan that had been Watnabe's birthplace.  In a quiet moment at the end of the burial mass, the Russian Orthodox bishop offered this prayer:

O Christ our God, who on this all-perfect and saving Feast, art graciously pleased to accept propitiatory prayers for those who are imprisoned in hades, promising unto us who are held in bondage great hope of release from the vileness that doth hinder us and did hinder them: send down Thy consolation and establish their souls in the mansions of the Just; and graciously vouchsafe unto them peace and pardon; for not the dead shall praise thee, O Lord, neither shall they who are in Hell make bold to offer unto thee confession. But we who are living will bless thee, and will pray, and offer unto thee propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls

It makes a rather nice counterpoint to the Kamikaze training manual, doesn't it?