Project Canterbury

Florence Buchanan
The Little Deaconess of the South Seas

By Emlyn Jones

New York: The Macmillan Co., 1921.
London: The Central Board of Missions, 1921.

Chapter V. Among the Japanese

THE fulcrum of the Torres Straits pearling industry is the Japanese diver; the white pearlers are content to send out their luggers in charge of the divers, buying in the shell and pearls from them. This state of affairs arises because the Japanese diver has no competitor, for he alone is willing to hazard his life several times daily to bring up a few pearl-shells, and perhaps incidentally, a fortune in the shape of a perfect pearl. And week by week during the fishing season, there may be seen ascending the rough-hewn road leading to the stony cemetery on the scorched hill-side, a ragged procession of half-naked, hard-faced little men (some women too), chattering and smoking, and carrying in their hands joss-sticks and paper flowers, to stick round the open grave.

During the three months of the N.W. monsoon the sea is too "dirty" for diving, and the Japanese quarter, then accounting for half of the population of the island, becomes a hive of drones; drinking, gambling, and debauchery are rife; and quarrels over the girls in the "Boarding" houses sometimes end up in a sordid scene of murder. Could the Gospel light be brought to shine upon these lives? That was the problem Miss Buchanan set herself to solve, but the answer was not easy to find. White women never ventured into the Japanese quarter, and although the Japanese men overflowed into the township the girl-slaves of the "Boarding" houses were kept close. The Deaconess could not speak Japanese; but like many others of the pioneer missionaries, she had the gift of tongues, enabling her among [29/30] whatever people she worked to assimilate sufficient of their language to enable her to teach them English intelligently. So for several years Miss Buchanan, as was her wont, when she had conceived for herself some new duty, followed up step by step the accomplishment of her purpose, which in this case should one day bring her, not only into the Japanese quarter, but sitting among the unfortunate girls, right inside the boarding houses. As a first step she made friends with Kashiwagi San, a storekeeper in the main street of Thursday Island. In his own country he had been a schoolmaster, he had also come under missionary influence and had a fair amount of English. As President of the Japanese Club, he was the trusted friend and adviser of the whole Japanese community. He gladly accepted Miss Buchanan's offer of English Bible lessons in exchange for lessons in Japanese. Happy the man, woman, or child who, as an inquirer into Christianity, had as his exponent of the Christ-life the little Deaconess. After some time Mr. Kashiwagi asked for confirmation, and later he humbly accepted a seat on the Church Council, and the honorary office of Japanese catechist.

Mr. Kashiwagi's character exhibited in a marked degree the qualities of a cultured Japanese, and his practice of Christian ethics rendered the outward forms of self-control, gentleness, patience, and reverence, a reflection of the same inward virtues, which is not always the case with the polite Shintoist, who pleases you outwardly and himself inwardly. No man earned more truly the respect of the whole community. The reality of his reverence for that which is sacred was well illustrated one very hot evening. He had gone to the hotel where Miss Buchanan lodged, to prepare with her the Bible lesson for the Japanese class, which by this time had grown into a "School," and she suggested that he should remove his coat, the heat of the room being intense. At the end of the lesson, Miss Buchanan noticed with surprise [30/31] that Mr. Kashiwagi was preparing to leave, without waiting to commend to God the work they should do that evening in the school; seeing her look of surprise he ventured to remark, "If you please, Madam, I cannot address God in my shirt sleeves". Another story told by her indicates the way in which Japanese politeness sometimes borders on untruthfulness. After asking a Japanese several questions, and receiving each time the answer "yes," entirely regardless of the nature of the case, even the Deaconess waxed impatient, and said:

"Why do you say 'yes' to questions to which you should truthfully answer no?" "Because, madam," answered the offender, "we cannot, in my country, say no to a lady."

The enthusiasm among the Japanese inquirers resulted in raising among themselves sufficient funds to build a Japanese school in the church grounds, and each year a few were anxious to receive baptism or confirmation, and in every case it was edifying to observe their native graces in their new setting of Christianity. Their natural love of giving is exemplified in making the first carnival of their year the feast of gifts; and the Christian "Boys" at Thursday Island used to find intense pleasure at Christmas time in bringing a gift of choice Japanese workmanship to their teacher; their gifts to the Great Teacher were also remembered, and at the early service one Christmas morning, a Japanese laundry boy who was a church communicant dropped his intended offering, which secreted itself from sight while the collection was made. However, he stayed and searched after the service ended, and appeared at the vestry door with a shining half-sovereign in his hand.

During the Christmas season a tea-party might sometimes be seen in progress at the Japanese school, after which there was a great show of Japanese slides of which, in addition to the large number she had of her own, Miss Buchanan had received a beautiful set from Judge Chubb, of Townsville, whom she met when he visited the island [31/32] on his way to Japan. The tea part of the function was somewhat trying both to the Japanese and to the hostesses; the latter, noticing an idle guest, would hurriedly offer a dish of cakes or sandwiches; the guest would rise, bow, accept the proffered food, but afterwards the hostesses would find plates piled up with untouched cakes which were as foreign to their Japanese taste, as was the idea of saying no to a lady. When sugar and milk were offered with their tea, their politeness still held out, and some of them, quite ignorant of the use of such with tea, gracefully poured some milk into the saucer and drank it, with the aid of the teaspoon, while they delicately ate the lump of sugar in their fingers.

At last the great adventure was made. We give Miss Buchanan's own account in writing to a friend: "Last Sunday, for the first time, Mr. Kashiwagi and I took a lantern service in the Japanese quarter only for them, and numbers came who had never heard the Gospel before. I think the Bishop was relieved to see me in church early next morning, as the house it was held in looked as if it must collapse if overcrowded, though we were assured it would not. I must explain that the population in the Japanese quarter are a totally different class from those who come to our school, who are mostly house-boys and storekeepers. Here are six hundred and more, rough divers, boat-builders, seamen, and carpenters, and never before have we been able to get a foothold amongst them, for nothing would induce them to come near the church or school, these are in fact the Jap slums. So my heart was indeed glad on Sunday evening to see the room filling up, till it was packed with these rough men standing, squatting, or sitting. They listened so attentively while I showed Gospel pictures on the sheet and Kashiwagi explained them. Our members, of the Japanese school were the choir, leading the singing of two hymns in Japanese, which showed up so well, Kashiwagi made the slides of them. One of the choir played on an accordion [32/33] to lead the tune, but in a key miles above the compass of any voice on earth! It did not matter, the whole congregation sang lustily in various keys major and minor, in sharps and flats. I wish you could have been there, your heart would have been glad, even if your ears were not pleased.

"The Bishop is delighted with our opening up this work and our going amongst them has reassured them for late one evening a few weeks ago a Japanese was without provocation stabbed by a white man in the street; the murderer is still at large; it is so easy for a man to hide away in the boats, and yet be ashore while being looked for at sea!"

When the divers had gone back to their pearling, and the Japanese quarter was quiet, Miss Buchanan moved forward with her next plan, that of getting among the unfortunate girls kept in the "Boarding" houses. Of this venture she wrote to her friend: "I hope you often think of me and the Japanese women's class. Dear little things, they are attending so regularly and listen very, very attentively to the short Bible lesson. One of them said she was never going to miss coming, as she must learn to become a Christian and tell others about Jesus Christ. It is natural to the Japanese mind to search into anything, still I am sure God is speaking to their hearts for we are earnestly praying for them, and certainly their lives are sad enough to need real gladness and love."

It is characteristic of Deaconess Buchanan with her own crystalline purity of thought and deed, to speak of these poor girls, slaves of the degraded passions of men, as "dear little things". The girl mentioned specially afterwards witnessed for Christ, and declared her wish to leave the boarding house; this she was enabled to do by marriage with one of the Christian men of the Japanese school. But this event resulted in the closing of the door against the Deaconess and her Bible; the crafty [33/34] old women who kept the boarding houses were content while they thought the girls were being kept amused, but they foresaw that all their trade would be gone should the others learn to practise the precept "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God".

Years after in Singapore, the Deaconess found opportunity to pick up some of the threads of her work among the Japanese, and when she was at Moa some Japanese fishermen called at the island, bringing her a present as a remembrance of her work among them.

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