I call this article “men of the road” because in all my years in Japan, only one woman came to me looking for a handout. I was once advised to refuse all such requests for three months after I went into a new parish, or I would end up with an endless stream of petitioners asking for money.
The requests were generally for money for travel and not for food. Since the islands of Japan stretch for about 1,500 miles the requests were generally not for small but large amounts.
The one request from a woman was also for travel money. There was a kindergarten in my parish at the time with over 200 pupils (and fortunately for me) run by two nuns. I was just trotted out for big occasions to give a talk for opening or closing the school year or some special ceremony. However, if the pupils got a chance they would be climbing all over me as a “strange foreigner.”
The woman was very insistent that I not tell the nuns anything about her request to me which was very strange as she was a complete stranger to me.
One of my “men of the road” told me that he belonged to the Yakuza (local mafia) and that he had done something to upset the boss, and needed to get out of the gang territory and beyond Osaka which was over three hundred miles away. The usual penalty for displeasing the boss is that he/they chop off one of his little fingers. He kept putting his hand in his pocket as if he had a knife in it. I was not worried as I am fairly big and I know some karate moves that would have taken care of him. I suggested that we go to the police and right the wrong that he was worried about, but he was not agreeable to that.
One old man who seemed to be in his eighties told me that he had being contemplating suicide, and that he had travelled down to the sea on the opposite side of the peninsula to commit suicide in the sea. Then he had decided to travel back to the part of Japan that he had originated from as he still had relatives there, but unfortunately he did not have the money to get there. I thought his story was genuine and gave him the money. It was only when I lifted his two bags to help him on his way that I realized that all that was in them was paper, and that I had been taken once again. Some of these “men of the road” could publish or act out their stories on stage and make money!
One parish that I was in had a bicycle racing track that attracted WWW.COLUMBAN.ORG November 2016 15 many punters to the several meetings held there every year. The profits it made helped to keep the city going in various ways. If someone claimed they were broke the police would give them a ticket–not money–for the train to the next town.
I had a policy of refusing these punters who came to me as I knew that they were gamblers who would spend any money that they got from me on gambling machines near the station. Most of the punters were just out for a day of fun, but there was a small number who were compulsive gamblers.
Another regular was known as “hachimaki-san.” This means that he wore a kind of head towel. He only wanted a small amount of money as after visiting the Catholic church he had eleven Protestant churches to visit before travelling along to the next town. Time was literally money for him.
In another parish I had another exception in the case of a young man of about 19 or 20 years old. All he ever wanted was some food which I gave him. His was a sad case as the marriage of his parents had broken up, and his mother and two sisters had gone back to the northern island of Hokkaido. He was living with his father who worked in a factory. After work each day the father went to a pub to drink. He would not give his son a key to the apartment, and the son had to wait outside the apartment until his father came home or he would not be let in that night.
Some of the men in the church decided to get the young man into some kind of institution in Tokyo. They took him up on a Sunday, but he was back again on Tuesday. He came to me one day looking for money which was very unusual, and when I asked him what he wanted it for he told me that he had fallen in love with a girl who worked in a department store and that he wanted to buy her flowers. He told me that he did not know her name, nor had he spoken to her. I told him that if he gave her flowers that he would embarrass her, and he should not do so.
He disappeared after that. Some weeks later a policeman came to me with a picture of him and asked me if I knew him. I just told him that he used to come around the church at times. When I asked him why he wanted to know he refused to give me any answer. I only hope and pray is that he got into some institution that was able to help him.
After many years in Japan, Columban Fr. Noel Doyle now resides in Ireland.