Ayako Miura – From Disillusioned Nihilist to Christian Author

Ayako Miura – From Disillusioned Nihilist to Christian Author

            Ayako Miura was one of the best-known women writers in modern Japan. Her literary talents are evident and her books grip the reader’s attention from the first page. And yet, Japan’s literary guild has often relegated her writings to the category of “popular novels,” unworthy of serious criticism. This is largely because of her examination of theological issues and Christian themes, which were seen as “foreign” to Japan. But Miura’s genius lays in her ability to show how these themes are universal and unescapable, regardless of culture and upbringing. For the western reader, this reality is equally striking.

Looking for Answers

            Ayako Miura was born in 1922 as Ayako Hotta in the Japanese town of Asahikawa, on the northern island of Hokkaidō. She remained there for the rest of her life. Her autobiography, translated in English with the title, The Wind is Blowing, begins when she was about twenty-four, working as an elementary school teacher during World War II. She had started teaching at age seventeen and had always taken her job very seriously. She also loved her students, faithfully keeping a notebook for each.

            She stopped teaching after Japan's defeat, when the American censure of Japanese propaganda from the students’ schoolbooks left her confused. “Had Japan been wrong until now? If Japan had not been wrong, was America wrong? If one was right, which was wrong?”[1] she wrote.

            Ayako felt that this was an urgent question, because the whole country was changing drastically, and the concept of authority which had been so ingrained in the Japanese mentality was being replaced by a sense of independence and even arrogance. She thought her question was particularly important for a teacher. “If I have been wrong, I should apologise on my knees to the children,” she said. But “no one had a clear answer. It did not seem to be a problem to them. … Some said, ‘It’s the time we live in.’ But what did they mean by ‘the times’? When things have been right until now and then become wrong, can we blame it on ‘the times’?”[2]

            The intensity of her question and the crisis of conscience it produced is characteristic of Ayako’s thought process, which will continue throughout her book, leading to questions about life in general.

            Soon after her decision to stop teaching, she contracted tuberculosis, which progressed to tuberculosis of the spine, a painful condition that confined her to an institution for thirteen years, mostly bedridden. The last seven years were spent in a body cast that restricted all movement.

Examining Christianity

            Parallel to these health challenges were her spiritual struggles. Unable to find convincing answers, she declared herself a nihilist. Central to her search for meaning in life was her friend Tadashi Maekawa, a Christian and fellow sufferer who patiently stayed at her side, either in person or by letter, and gave her a Bible to read. Ayako felt free to open up to him. “There isn’t a single reliable thing,” she once wrote to him. “Nothing? No continuity? Yet I long for it.”[3]

            Her painful condition of both body and mind brought her to the brink of suicide, but Tadashi was always there. “Aya-chan!” he said, “I don’t know how often I’ve been praying that you will get better, and live. I don’t mind dying if it means you will live, but I’m such a poor Christian, I’ve come to see that I have no power to save you.”[4]

            At the same time, Ayako was losing faith in the medical profession, as doctor after doctor dismissed her conviction that her tuberculosis had attacked her spine. “I felt I was living in a terribly unenlightened age and began to think frequently that mankind knew nothing. … At that point, I found the words in the Bible, ‘If a man thinks he knows something, he does not yet know what he ought to know,’ and they struck a deep chord within me. ‘What he ought to know’ – could this mean God, I wondered.”[5]

            She laughed when her friends said that, “in today’s scientific, progressive world, if something cannot be proved it is the same as not existing.”[6] In her view, “if there was no scientific proof that God did not exist, then it was unscientific to say that He did not.”[7]

            While she was willing to admit there was a God, however, she still had no interest in Christianity. “Christianity existed in warring America, England, France, and Germany. Had not Christ lacked the power to end the war? If that were so, then religion was as powerless as learning. Despair swept over me. The world had lost the true God, and I was dissatisfied with a church that had apparently failed to realise this.”[8]

            Reading the Book of Ecclesiastes marked a turning point in her life and changed her opinion of Christianity as a shallow religion with simple-minded answers. “All is vanity” expressed her feelings quite accurately. The words, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” (Eccl. 12:1) spoke powerfully to her and convinced her that she had to keep seeking.

The Power of God’s Word

            Bedridden as she was, Ayako could not attend a church, but she was slowly warming up to Christianity through Tadashi’s words and the Bible he had given her. One of her first results of her Bible reading was a realization of human depravity. Paradoxically, this became particularly evident not when she sinned, but when she felt most indifferent to sin. “I began wondering whether it was not the greatest sin of all to be unaware of one’s sin,” she wrote. “And then I felt I had begun to understand the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.”

            When she was finally diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine, a condition she had suspected but that had eluded all X-rays, she compared it to the pervasiveness of sin. “If this ignorance had continued,” she wrote, “might not all my bones have been affected? I would certainly have died. And then I thought, The same could be true of my soul. Maybe I did not realise my heart was being eaten away or how intected I was, sinply because I was unaware of my sin. I found this thought very frightening.”[9]

            A breakthrough came one Christmas, when the hospital was getting decorated for a holiday most of the patients didn’t even understand. She had an idea. What if they invited a pastor to come and explain the true meaning of that celebration?

            To her surprise, everyone agreed. In fact, they began to prepare for the pastor’s visit, cleaning their quarters and wearing their best clothes, as if God himself was going to come. Ayako attributed this unexpected interest in Christianity to Tadashi’s example.

            Tuberculosis patients were often abandoned. “If a wife was sick for a year, the question of divorce usually came up,” she said. “And even if divorce was not discussed, the husband virtually gave up visiting her. Boyfriends were no different.”[10]

            And yet Tadashi had been faithfully visiting or writing to Ayako, making sure she had everything she needed. What’s more, whenever he came, he warmly greeted the other women in the ward, something no visitor ever did.

            Not all Christians were such a good example to Ayako. Some of the ones she had met had rejected and criticized her. But strangely, their attitude only served to strengthen, rather than diminish, her feelings that Christianity might hold some powerful truth. Yes, some Christians were hurtful and mean, she thought, but “if God accepts that sort of person, isn’t it possible that He will accept me?”[11]

            The pastor’s visit was anticlimactic, as his message was unintelligible to most of the patients. “Christianity is terribly difficult, isn’t it?”[12] a patient said. And yet, they agreed to have him back every week.

            People from every ward attended, each for different reasons. One admitted he came to kill time, another “to broaden his mind.”[13] Their responses were also quite different. Someone thought the Bible should be rewritten, taking out all miracles, so that it would be accepted by all. And yet, some people came to have genuine faith.

            In fact, the man who had come to kill time became convinced that Jesus was God by reading of the willingness of his followers to face persecution and death in order to spread the gospel. The man who had come to broaden his mind was baptized a few years later. “It showed me that whatever motives people had when they read the Bible, they could be struck by its words,”[14] Ayako said.

Christian Commitment

            Finally, in 1952, Ayako was baptized too. Immediately, she began writing to her friends sharing the gospel, just as Tadashi had done with her. This desire became even stronger two years later, when Tadashi, who had also been suffering from tuberculosis, died during a surgery. He was only thirty-five. “Sometimes my bruised heart was urged on by the thought that I must now live his life for him,”[15] she said.

            The resolve was not always easy. She missed her friend and felt she could not go on without him. But right when she was having one of her darkest moments, she received a large number of letters from tubercular patients living all over Japan.

            That’s because, shortly before Tadashi’s death, Ayako had arranged for a monthly Christian magazine to be delivered to these patients free of charge, and now these patients were writing to thank her. Answering their letters became a mission to her, as difficult as it was, since writing while bound by a plaster cast required a lot of effort. In fact, writing a card took so much effort that she had to rest one or two days after that.

            But writing was also rewarding. For one thing, it helped her to see that many people were suffering much more than she was. She was ill, but at least she still had her parents and some friends. Some people were completely abandoned. One woman, bound to her bed, had to live in the same house with her husband and his new wife, in a state of constant humiliation. By encouraging these people, Ayako began to find a purpose in life.

            One of her correspondents was a Christian man named Mitsuyo Miura. In Japan, the name Mitsuyo could be for a man or a woman and the publisher of the magazine, assuming this was a woman, provided Mitsuyo with Ayako’s personal address.

            Ayako was surprised but happy, because Mitsuyo shared a lot of her same interests. He even looked and sounded like Tadashi, so much that people thought he was Tadashi’s younger brother. She asked him to read one of his favorite Bible passages, and he chose John 14. By that choice, he showed he had his eyes fixed on heaven – a trait Ayako admired.

            It took a while for the two to realize their relationship was there to stay. Mitsuyo had been hesitant about marriage in general, while Ayako had to battle a host of doubts about herself. Could she marry, as sick as she was? Could she ever forget Tadashi? Was she holding Mitsuyo back, when he had already made a strong impression on many younger, healthier women?

            Mitsuyo assured her that he wasn’t looking for anyone else, that he loved her for what she was, and that he didn’t want her to forget Tadashi.

            Slowly, Ayako recovered, until she was well enough to marry. She and Mitsuyo had an engagement ceremony, where they decided to exchange Bibles instead of rings, as a sign that they would be guided by God’s Word. They married soon after that, in the spring of 1960.

            “As we had sung in the hymn that day, we could not fathom anything about our future,” she said, “but we prayed that whatever happened, we would both stand firm in our faith.”

A Literary Star

            Ayko’s autobiography ends there, with the announcement that “it was a warm spring evening without a breath of wind.” The wind had, at least for some time, stopped howling (the title of her book, which was taken from the Japanese translation of a line of a favorite hymn, Jesus Lover of My Soul).

            Mitsuyo encouraged his wife to write, and prayed with her over each of her works. Before writing the novel that made her famous, Freezing Point, she prayed, “If this work is pleasing to God’s heart, then please let me write it. If it sullies the body of the Lord, then I pray that I not be allowed to write it.”[16]

            In 1963, her novel was chosen out of 731 submissions and became an immediate best-seller, with over 500,000 copies sold in a short time. The main theme was the original sin – genzai in Japanese – a word so unfamiliar to the general public that they didn’t know how to pronounce it. But it was an unescapable reality which soon became a hot topic of conversation.

            Her following book, Shiokari Pass, is often considered her best novel. Set at the turn of the 19th century, it describes the inner conflict of a young man who is forced to choose between his childhood sweetheart and his newly found Christian faith. It also gives an accurate picture of the challenges Japanese Christians faced at that time. The book ends with a great episode of personal sacrifice which depicts Christ’s substitutionary death.

            Later, she wrote a sequel to Freezing Point, developing the theme of original sin more fully. Altogether, Ayako wrote about eighty works of fiction and non-fiction. Many of her novels were turned into feature films.

            Her works are not for the faint-hearted. They explore many difficult subjects and cause readers to deal with unpleasant questions. But they always circle back to one of the main themes of her first book, “There must be a deeper wisdom in this world.”[17]



[1] Ayako Miura, The Wind is Howling, transl. by Valerie Griffiths, Downers Grove, ILL, InterVarsity Press, 1977, 15

[2] Ibid, 15

[3] Ibid, 45

[4] Ibid, 47

[5] Ibid, 81

[6] Ibid, 81

[7] Ibid, 82

[8] Ibid, 75

[9] Ibid, 110

[10] Ibid, 88

[11] Ibid, 49             

[12] Ibid, 90

[13] Ibid, 90

[14] Ibid, 91

[15] Ibid, 144

[16] Quoted in Philip Gabriel, Spirit Matters: The Transcendent in Modern Japanese Literature, 14.

[17] Ayako Miura, The Freezing Point, quoted in Philip Gabriel, Spirit Matters, 17.