|Kanako Ota in front of a favorite statue of the Blessed Mother at Sakai Church in Osaka|
For Kanako Ota, a resident of Sakai City in Osaka, this year’s Easter Vigil on April 7 will be a uniquely momentous occasion. For that is the date when she will receive the sacrament of Baptism.
“My parents are professed Buddhists, but I had a feeling I would end up being baptized. I even told my husband before we were married,” she says.
Baptism, of course, marks a person’s spiritual birth. For Kanako, it will also mark the culmination of a long and often painful journey.
She attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. As she puts it herself, her family life was “complicated.” Just six months after she was born, her mother tried to kill herself.
The attempt failed but she injured herself so badly, she was left with an artificial arm and leg. Following that, she became mentally unstable and repeatedly attacked her own hand with a carving knife.
Kanako went to Catholic schools throughout her childhood. “In the middle of all the troubles with my mother,” she says, “I sometimes went to the chapel at school, as if to seek counsel.
“I turned to the statue of the Blessed Mother and the crucifix and pleaded, ‘help me!’ Sometimes I just let out a scream inside my heart.”
Looking back on it now she sometimes feels that, in a strange way, her move towards Catholicism was influenced by her family’s Buddhist devotions. “Maybe I learned something, seeing my mother go before the family altar every day,” she says. “Maybe even with the differences of religion notwithstanding, you sort of pick up the way you are supposed to relate to God.”
When she was 26, her mother died. Some of her last words were, “my life was all for nothing.” Kanako, who had a one-year-old child of her own by then, says she felt “relief” more than sadness after the event.
“Because I had a mother, a family like that, I really contemplated human pain and sadness, and the way to live a happy life; I learned to feel,” she says.
“I realized, ‘I was born to learn this lesson.’ And I decided I wanted to become the sort of person who could walk alongside the weak – people like my mother – on their journey.”
The years went by and she and her husband produced four children. But when the children grew older and her household duties began to grow lighter, she began to think about what to do with the next phase of her life. She found herself suspecting strongly that she “might find my allotted role at a church.”
She began to go to Mass at Sakai Church, which was where the religious sisters she had met during her days in Catholic school went. Then she decided to take courses to learn more about the faith.
What fascinated her most during her courses were those moments when, during discussion with fellow participants, it became clear that the world of the Bible and her own life overlapped. People and situations from her past kept coming to mind. She reflected most often on her mother, thinking, “That person in the Bible—that’s my mom.”
Now, Kanako is helping out at a public kindergarten for children with special needs. There are times when communicating with them is difficult, but a relationship of trust does grow as she searches for a way to work with each individual child.
“I feel so happy when I realize that I have developed deeper bonds with them through a meeting of hearts,” she says.
A statue of the Blessed Mother that she received while in school still stands in her home. When her children were studying for exams at school, she gave them rosaries as an o-mamori, or a sort of mystical protection. They, in turn, are united in their support of her religious pursuit.
“How do they feel about my baptism? They’re probably thinking to themselves, ‘So, she’s finally getting around to it?’ ” she says.
“I’ve certainly never encountered any resistance from them. On the contrary, they often ask me with concern if I’ve left my Bible somewhere safe.”
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