updated 28 Nov 2013, 23:59
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Thu, Nov 28, 2013
The Sunday Times
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Tokyo's Mother of Vagabonds
by Wong Kim Hoh

Reverend Haruko Morimoto is 86 years old and tiny, standing at just 1.47m.

Her voice, however, has a magnificent boom.

Known as The Mother of Vagabonds in Tokyo, she has been dishing out meals and sermons to the city's filthiest and nastiest for half a century.

"I've converted more than 8,800 people and served more than eight million free meals," she said through an interpreter.

The diminutive woman was in town recently with her son, Pastor Shito Morimoto, 55, for the screening of I Surrender All by several churches, including The Church of Singapore in Bukit Timah and City Harvest Dialect Church in Jurong West. The documentary chronicles the relief work mother and son undertook in areas affected by the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011.

One of very few Christian women ministers in Japan, Rev Morimoto is an icon in Tokyo's Sanya district, home to drunks, drifters and people who have given up on life.

Fearless and aggressive, she epitomises tough love and has been known to bellow at and even slap recalcitrant drunks under her charge, even as she dresses their wounds and cleans up their excrement.

Her background is equally colourful.

Her parents divorced when she was five. Her father, a garment seller, remarried a Korean woman who often beat the little girl with a hooked iron rod.

After her father died when she was 18, she went with her stepmother to Busan in South Korea, but left when she could not stand the abuse any more.

She peddled seaweed and saved a tidy sum, only to lose it all to a conniving couple. At this low point, however, she met her husband, a Chinese physician from Hebei.

A mayor she befriended while she had her seaweed business had arranged the meeting at a hotel.

"He introduced me to this man called Mr Wong and asked me if I would like to marry him," she recalls.

"I was so shy I didn't even dare to look at him at first. But then, I saw that he was quite good-looking and seemed like a good man. I was quite shocked at what I said but I told the mayor, 'I leave it in your good hands,'" she said with a loud chortle.

"If it's destiny, it's just a matter of time."

Her husband was 17 years older but treated her very well. She gave him five children, now aged between 55 and 63.

A man with a big heart, he encouraged her to help beggars and other underprivileged folk in downtown Busan where they lived.

Her youngest child, Mr Shito Morimoto, added: "As a kid, I remember many beggar children would join us at the table for meals."

When she was 38, she left for Tokyo so that the children could receive a Japanese education. Her husband was to have joined them later.

But tragedy struck and her husband fell sick. When he finally made it to Japan a year later, he was already paralysed. By then, she had enrolled in a theological college and had started helping the homeless in Sanya. A woman of great grit, she also found work selling Pola cosmetics door to door. She juggled that with looking after her husband and family, keeping up with her studies and church work. "For many years, I had only one meal a day," she said, adding that she often made do with two hours of sleep. She will have you know she was a stellar cosmetics saleswoman, a job she continued doing until she was 76. "One year, I sold almost $500,000 worth of cosmetics," she said.

Rev Morimoto's husband died when he was 64. Then 47, she sold her house and ploughed her money into building a church and feeding the homeless in Sanya.

Her reason for helping them is simple: She cannot give up on those who have already been turned away by their families and society. Although age has slowed her down, she still delivers sermons at the World Christ Gospel Church and serves food several times a month.

About 18 years ago, Mr Morimoto - who used to work as a driver - decided to join his mother in ministering to the poor. His siblings are all married and lead their own lives.

"There are now 60,000 homeless people in Japan. If we don't help them early, many take their own lives or end up as vagabonds or drunkards," he said.

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