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Shiokari Pass

Shiokari Pass is one of numerous, ordinary-looking passes in Japan, but not many Japanesese would grow up without learning its name.

What happened at Shiokari Pass over 100 years ago makes it stand out.

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A signpost tells you that Shiokari Pass, 274 metres above sea level, was named after Teshio / Ishikari Provinces as it used to make the border between them.

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After leaving the tiny (and probably unmanned) Shiokari Station,

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the railtrack descends north.

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Behind the signpost at Shiokari Pass, there is a monument…

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…which was built in September 1969 to mark “The location where Masao Nagano died on duty”.

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On the back it reads:

In the evening of February the 28th 1909, here at Shiokari Pass, the last carriage suddenly became uncoupled and started to run down backwards.  All the passengers panicked in fear of the carriage derailing and overturning.  At that moment, one of the passengers Masao Nagano who was the head of general affairs at Asahikawa Transportation Office, operated the emergency brake saving all the passengers’ lives, but he himself died under the wheels.  As a devout Christian, he was carrying his will in his inner pocket at all times.  “I am equally grateful for all the hardships, happiness, life and death.  With gratitude I offer all I have to God.” is a part of the will.  He was 30 years of age.

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Unfortunately not much is known about Masao Nagano, as everything he had written (letters, diary etc) was burned after his death, as instructed in his will.  He was born in July 1880, so actually he died at the age of 29, but back then a newborn baby was regarded as one year old in Japan, therefore “30 years of age” on the memorial.

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According to the information I have gathered on the internet (therefore may be incorrect), Masao Nagano was born in Mizuho Village in Aichi on the 31st of July 1880.  His father died when he was three years old.  His mother appointed a male relation as Masao’s guardian, but this relation cheated them and stole all her assets.  On finishing elementary education when he was twelve years old, Masao started work as a waiter at Nagoya Prison to provide for the family.  When he was fifteen and working at Nagoya Court of Appeal, a judge noticed him and sent him to Hakodate in Hokkaido so that he could study and work while living in a student accommodation.  A few years later he passed an exam and was qualified as a low-rank government official in Osaka.  While living in Osaka, Masao was greatly influenced by his best friend and a devout Christian Harusame Nakamura, which led to his eventual baptism.  In May 1898, just before his eighteenth birthday, he went to Sapporo in Hokkaido to work, by invitation of his senior from his time in Osaka.  In November 1901 he was transferred to Asahikawa, where he worked in the railway office till his death.

According to information from people who knew him, he lived a simple life, despite being relatively well paid.  He rarely bought new clothes.  He stored cooked soya beans in a pot and lived on them for a week or even ten days.  Saving money that way, he sent some to his mother and made a lot of donations to help people in need.  When he was awarded a generous amount of money as Imperial Grant for his services during the Russo-Japanese War, he donated it to found a Young Railwaymen’s Christian Association.  He visited churches in other areas to attend meetings and to speak; he was a fiercely earnest, powerful speaker who held listeners spellbound.  When a foreign missionary was suspected of being a spy and met great hostility, Masao wrote to the newspapers and publicly defended the missionary.

At work he was deeply trusted and respected not only by his colleagues and juniors but also by his superiors.  When he was working in Sapporo, he had an alcoholic colleague.  Due to the extreme alcohol dependence, the colleague was eventually deserted not only by his colleagues and superiors at work but also by his own family.  He was fired from work.  Only Masao devoted himself in nursing and caring for him.  The colleague became agitated and violent after drinking, but Masao would not give up and nursed his colleague until he fully recovered from alcoholism.  Masao then pleaded with his superior for his colleague’s return to work.  Struck by Masao’s exceptionally fine character and devotion, his superior granted his wish.  After that, any worker who was more than a handful to handle was sent to Masao, to be guided and reformed by him.

Location of Shiokari Station in Hokkaido, Japan

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In the evening of the 28th of February 1909, he was on the way home from a church in the town of Wassamu.  In pitch darkness and light snowfall, the train was running up to the summit of Shiokari Pass, when the last carriage suddenly became uncoupled and started running backwards.  Masao must have sprung into action immediately.  Spotting an emergency hand brake on the deck, he turned it in an effort to bring the carriage to a halt.  The carriage slowed down but would not stop completely.  If it kept going downhill, the carriage would gain speed again and would most likely derail at the next bend…

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Some passengers reportedly witnessed Masao looking back at them and nodding as if to send a farewell, before he threw himself onto the railtrack.  The next moment the carriage came to a halt with a jolt.  Getting out of the carriage and learning that their lives were saved by Masao’s self-sacrifice, the passengers broke down in tears.  In the carriage he had left behind some belongings which included his Bible and sweet cakes for his younger sister.

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It seems that his death was initially regarded as a tragic accident.  The newspaper article below reads:

Office Clerk accidentally killed while trying to stop a runaway carriage

Yesterday evening of the 28th of February at 8PM, a carriage became uncoupled from the rest of the train; due to the slope the carriage started running backwards.  The conductor desperately tried to stop the carriage but in vain.  Mr. Masao Nagano, a clerk at the train office who happened to be on board, became gravely concerned, calmed down the agitated passengers and attempted to bring the carriage to a halt by using the handbrake.  During the hurried attempt, however, Mr. Nagano accidentally slipped off the deck and fell under the train.  He was instantly killed; the back of his head crushed and both his legs severed from the thighs.  His body arrived in Asahikawa at midnight and was taken to Takemura Hospital where it was stitched up before returning to his home address.  Originally from Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture, this 31-year-old was a kind-hearted devout Christian who was loved and respected by his colleagues.  After visiting Wassamu for preaching, he took the train to return home and met his untimely and tragic death.

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Masao who lived in Asahikawa regularly visited Asahikawa Rokujoh Church to pray.  At that church in the night of the incident, there was a mysterious sighting.  The son of then priest reported:  “At around 21:00 hours that evening, towards the end of a meeting, an errand from the station brought us the tragic news.  We were however convinced that it was a case of a mistaken identity, because a short while ago Mr. Nagano had come in and started to pray in the front row as usual.  But when we looked round, we were startled to see that there was no sign of him.”  A few people confirmed this mysterious sighting of Masao that night.

Shiokari Pass and Station in snow

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Looking north from the station

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Masao Nagano’s great sacrifice had only been known in a circle of friends and Christians until, over half a century after the incident, the story of “Shiokari Pass” by Ayako Miura was serialised in a Christian magazine in 1966.  It was published as a paperback in 1968 and became an instant bestseller.

Asahikawa Rokujoh Church

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Ayako Miura (1922-1999), an acclaimed Japanese novelist, was born in Asahikawa.  A devout Christian herself, she happened to go to Asahikawa Rokujoh Church where Masao Nagano used to pray.  In July 1964 she learned about the incident at Shiokari Pass from an elderly member of the church who was reportedly Masao’s junior at work.  She tried to find living relatives of Masao Nagano, but failed.  Because so little was known of Masao himself either, she created Nobuo Nagano as the main character of her novel and wrote “Shiokari Pass” with characters and episodes she invented.  The links below tells you the synopsis.

塩狩峠 Shiokari Pass (Miura Ayako, 1968)

Shiokari Pass

Shiokari Pass was made into a film in 1973.

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Here you can watch the second half of the film, dubbed in English.

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In May 1999, at a stone’s throw distance from Shiokari Station, Shiokari Pass Memorial Museum was opened.  It is housed in Ayako Miura’s family home which was brought from Asahikawa — her parents used to run a store.

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In addition to the references for both the novel and the film version of “Shiokari Pass”, the museum displays a room where she wrote “Freezing Point”, Mr. and Mrs. Miura’s daily commodities, their living space etc.

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Ayako Miura at Shiokari Station

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The incident was initially regarded as a tragic accident, but when it became clear that Masao Nagano was a devout Christian who was ready to give his life to God at any time, it was believed that he threw himself onto the railtrack to save all the other passengers.  Ayako Miura had no doubt about it and wrote the novel in that stance.

In order to reflect on and keep alive Masao Nagano’s great sacrifice and love for others, his life is celebrated regularly and a candle-lit vigil is held at Shiokari Pass on the anniversary of his death every year.

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I learned that “Shiokari Pass” was based on true events when I was a teenager.  While young, I did not feel like reading such a sad story, so I didn’t.  In recent years while unstoppably aging, I felt like reading it at last, so bought this English version and have finished reading!

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In the novel, two points bothered me though.

1:  I cannot accept that a loving mother would leave her baby for her faith as related in the novel.  (Had I been Nobuo’s mother, I would have pretended that I was no longer a Christian until the mother-in-law died.)

2:  It was too dramatic that Nobuo died on his way to his engagement ceremony to Fujiko.  (It could have been on his way to see Fujiko to decide on the date for the ceremony.)

Also in the film at the end, unlike the ending of the novel, Fujiko did not cry her heart out.  After suffering so much for so long and on the verge of becoming truly happy with Nobuo at last, she lost him.  Wouldn’t it be only natural for her to cry on the spot where Masao had died…?

Criticism aside, I believe “Shiokari Pass” is well worth reading/watching.

My sceptical husband does not believe that Masao’s body could stop the train if it was travelling fast enough to derail at the next bend.  He thinks the train would have stopped anyway because the brake was on, and Masao was probably jolted off as it slowed.  What do YOU think?

Incidentally, while googling about Shiokari Pass, I came across a similar incident.  I will write about it in my next post.

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