Story by Ben Hills

Wartime brutality left relations between Australia and Japan in tatters, but a humble priest from Lismore made it his life’s mission to heal the scars of hatred. 

The nine Buddhist priests, with their shaved heads and sombre vestments, stood before the flower-covered coffin chanting their mournful sutras. They had made a pilgrimage from the great temples of Nara to pay their last respects to one of the most remarkable men this Japanese city has known – despite the fact he was not Buddhist, not even Japanese.

“That was not important,” recalls Taihan Tsujimura, a mourner at the touching service that was held one year ago this month. “What matters is that he was a very fine human being. I am sure he is in Jodo, the land of the pure where the enlightened go after death.” The man in the coffin before the altar of the little church he built was Father Tony Glynn, an Australian Marist priest, better known to the congregation to which he ministered for more than 40 years as “Tony shimpu-sama”, or Tony-the-honourable-priest. For four days, packed in dry ice and with a slight smile on his face, he lay in state while more than 4,000 people queued to pray for his soul – Christians from all over Japan, Buddhist priests, the mayor of Nara and a raft of local politicians, businessmen and officials from the Australian Embassy.

It was an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary man. Arriving in Japan on a “mission of reconciliation” when the wounds of World War II were still raw, he devoted his life to humanitarian work, to establishing churches, schools and old people’s homes – but, most of all, to building bridges between the war’s archenemies.

Among many honours, he achieved a unique trifecta – an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II, the Order of the Rising Sun from Emperor Hirohito, and the Order of Australia from then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. He counted among his friends such diverse characters as former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, and Cardinal Richard Cushing, one of the United States’ most influential prelates.

Says another admirer, John Menadue, the former Australian Ambassador to Japan: “No-one has done more to reconcile Australia and Japan. Other people flit across the screen, achieving senior positions and gongs after their names, and then they are gone. Tony’s remarkable mission lasted for more than 40 years and will never be forgotten.”

When he was a little boy, Tony Glynn’s aunt used to sit the kids in front of the fire and read them true-life adventure stories. His favourite was the one about the martyrs of Nagasaki, 26 believers who were crucified in the 16th century when Christianity, which had been brought to Japan by the Basque Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier, was outlawed by the shoguns. “He was very impressed by their courage,” says Father Paul Glynn, Tony’s younger brother. “When they were fastened to the crosses, one of them demanded of their executioners, ‘Look into our faces! Do you see fear?’ From that moment, Tony wanted to become a missionary – and he wanted to come to Japan.”

One of a family of eight children – their mother died when he was young – Anthony Joachim Glynn grew up in Lismore in country NSW, where his father ran a chain of general stores. Three of the sons – John, Tony and Paul – followed each other to Woodlawn College, Lismore; as boarders to St Joseph’s at Hunters Hill; and then into the priesthood.

Another former Woodlawn student was to play an inspirational role in the decision of two of the Glynn boys to become missionaries to Japan. This was Lionel Marsden, a padre captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. Father Marsden saw more than his share of sickness, starvation, torture and summary execution on the Burma railway and at Changi POW camp.

“He resolved,” says Paul Glynn, “that if he ever got out of there alive, he would go to Japan as a missionary.” That, however, was easier said than done. In the immediate postwar years, Australia looked to Japan through bitter eyes, and preaching reconciliation was not at all popular. But Lionel Marsden was undaunted and toured the country lecturing, preaching and meeting groups of Australian ex-servicemen.

“It took him years to get the [Marist] authorities to agree to the mission,” says Paul Glynn. “They thought he was still a bit silly in the head from the [POW] camp.” Finally, in 1949, Father Marsden set out for Japan. Three years later, aged 26, the newly ordained Father Tony Glynn sailed off to join him. Later, young Father Paul followed them.

The city of Nara has historic Buddhist temples at every turn. Christianity never made much of an impression here, and when the missionaries arrived from Australia – and, later, Ireland and the US – there were fewer than 200, mostly elderly, believers, with one modest chapel and no priest. Poverty and sickness were rife in those postwar years.

“Japan,” Tony Glynn wrote to his brother Paul, “has fallen in the gutter, and the rest of the world is kicking it in the stomach. Somehow we must be reconciled and help them rise again.” Soon, ships began to arrive with bales of second-hand clothing and crates of powdered milk. Tony Glynn, inheriting a gift for the blarney from his Irish forebears, took off on fundraising missions to Australia and the US. “He invested shrewdly,” says Paul Glynn, running through the list of properties now worth millions that his brother managed to snap up for a few yen. Nara today boasts eight Marist-founded churches, five kindergartens, a day nursery, two old people’s homes, plus a toy library for autistic children and a club for the parents of children with Down’s syndrome.

Tony Glynn’s home, for the last 26 years, was the bare and chilly presbytery of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tomigaoka, on Nara’s outskirts. Next door, in the shade of a Tasmanian blue gum, immaculately drilled preschool children in smart uniforms fold origami koalas.

As I talk to a group of Glynn’s parishioners, I can sense these mostly middle-aged men are deeply moved by their mentor’s death. “He was a holy man – a saint,” says Akitomo (Andy) Yoshida, whose family converted to Christianity after meeting him through the kindergarten.

Yoshida recalls with a shudder how, while the men were sitting by the body on the first night of the wake, someone touched Glynn’s lips with a farewell drop of sake, the warm rice wine he loved. “His mouth moved and there was a faint sound – we all leapt back, thinking for a moment that he was rising from the dead.”

In 1959, Tony Glynn returned to Australia on what would be the first of a series of pilgrimages aimed at restoring relations between the two countries. He brought with him a collection of 500 precious Japanese artworks entrusted to him by the people of Nara. The exhibition, which toured 20 centres, was the first postwar cultural exchange between the two countries. Remarkably – this was a time when people were warned not to park Japanese cars at RSL clubs – he won the backing of people up to and including the-then Prime Minister. “We should no longer live in the past. Old enmities should be forgotten. Australia must learn to live with Japan,” declared Robert Menzies, opening the exhibition at Mark Foy’s Sydney department store.

During the next three decades, Glynn returned to Australia several times with groups of Japanese soldiers and Buddhist priests. They visited memorial sites at Cowra, where more than 1,000 Japanese POWs were held captive and from where a mass breakout was staged in 1944; on Sydney Harbour, where the midget submarines were sunk; and at Darwin, where the bodies of about 70 Japanese sailors still rest in the submarine that is their underwater tomb. “It helped to rebuild relations,” says Taihan Tsujimura, who went on three of these pilgrimages. “And I think it reminded both sides what a tragic and meaningless thing war is.”

The honourable priest knew he was dying – the melanoma first detected in his chest had spread to other bones and organs. “But he was determined to show how a Christian should die – he died like a bushido [samurai warrior],” says Andy Yoshida. Refusing to go to a hospice, he worked to the end, finally collapsing during Mass on November 27 last year. Four days later, at the age of 68, Tony Glynn, looked up from his bed, said “arigato” (thank you) to his doctor and nurses, and died.

Nara was in mourning. Mayor Yasunori Ohkawa – who a few months earlier had made him the first foreigner honoured with “special citizenship” of the city – had known Glynn for 25 years. “He had a great heart,” he says. “In those early days when we were all thin and hungry, he was like Santa Claus.”

At the newly built old people’s home, I asked Sidney Nugent, the Australian priest in charge, whether there was anything Glynn would have regretted leaving uncompleted. “The reconciliation between Japan and the rest of Asia,” he replied. “He was very aware that Japan had not fully acknowledged its aggression and had not apologised.”

Later, Paul Glynn confirms that his brother had been working on a book about Japan’s wartime atrocities. “Because he felt Japanese, Tony was particularly worried that Japan had not yet owned up to its guilt, like the Germans repenting over their Nazism,” says Father Paul. “But he helped reconcile Japan and Australia, and that is quite an achievement for one man.”

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