Satoko Kitahara, Maria of Ants Town 蟻の町のマリア

(1) Ants Villa and Mary of Ants Town

This post is about a name and a place. The name is Satoko Kitahara 北原怜子  a.k.a. “Mary of Ants Town” (1929-1958). The place is 蟻の街, Ari-no-machi, meaning “Ants Villa”, “Ants Town”, “City of Ants”, etc.

Ants Town was formed in the wake of World War 2 as a legal cooperative to house and organize the labors of local “ragpickers.” Ragpicker is an English term whose meaning seems consistent across cultures: it describes people on the lower rungs of society who collect garbage to be sold for recycling. In Japanese, ‘ragpicker’ is written ばたや, ばた屋, or バタヤ , and pronounced bataya. According to Seidenstecker, ragpickers occupied a social position “just above beggars and vagrants.”

Founded by Motomu Ozawa 小沢求 in 1950,  the organization was named “the Association of Ants” 「蟻の会」, and located itself on the site of a former lumberyard. The community was named for ants because “‘ants work hard, anywhere at all, and gain strength from community,'” a sentiment expressed by Tooru Matsui, an early leader of the community (Source 1, page 234). The following photo, circa 1969, shows the tailgate of a ragpicker’s truck, decorated with the logo of an ant dragging the world (source).

1950年9月27日号『アサヒグラフ』「大都会の蟻」 1950 September 27 issue “Asahi Graph”, “big city of ants.” (source)

(2) Some things about Mary

Ants Town would find an unlikely advocate (and public face) in the form of Satoko Kitahara. Kitahara was raised in a comfortable household, the daughter of a professor, and herself a graduate of pharmaceutical college. Her introduction to the world of Ants Town was made when Brother Zeno, a Polish Franciscan priest, stopped by the Kitahara family home, presumably asking for alms for the poor.

Kitahara was impressed by Brother Zeno and was moved by his description of the people of Ants Town. In 1951 Kitahara began working with the community, educating and caring for the children of Ari-no-machi. Kitahara moved into Ants Town in 1952 and lived there until her death from tuberculosis in 1958. Here’s a photo of Kitahara, taken by Tsuneko Sasamoto, the first female photojournalist in Japan (source).

Kitahara’s story gained wide attention, as evidence by the 1958 film 「蟻の街のマリア」 starring actress 千之赫子 Chino Kakuko ちの かくこ (English title: Ragpicker’s Angel).

Also, her story was told in the June, 1959 publication, 『蟻の街のマリア』, written by 松居桃楼 , illustrated by 姫野ひろし, and published by トモブック社.

Kitahara’s full Christian name was エリザベ マリ  北原怜子 (Elizabeth Mary Satoko Kitahara); although she succumbed to tuberculosis on January 23, 1958, she continues to be celebrated internationally, primarily in Catholic circles. On January 22, 2015, Kitahara was declared “venerable” by Pope Francis, an honor that is quite rare for a Japanese person; only the various Martyrs of Japan 日本の殉教者 have achieved greater recognition from the Roman Catholic Church.

(3) Mapping the first City of Ants (1950-1960)

The City of Ants has had two iterations; the first, from 1950-1960 is the settlement that made Satoko Kitahara famous. Various sources describe its location as “Sumida Park near the Kototoi Bridge” (p. 104), the “corner of the foot of Kototoi bridge” 一角で言問橋 の袂, and “a corner of the Sumida Park on the right bank of the Sumida River.”

The community’s first home was “an abandoned building in the public park” (Source 1), adjacent to a former lumberyard. One source (at 1:11) says the original building was 製材工場従業見用の, a former residence for sawmill factory employees. The original building may possibly be visible in this aerial photo of the Sumida River from 1945/1950 (map).

The following drawing depicts the settlement of Ants Town; the white box at top shows the its location along the Sumidagawa river, with the Kototoi-bashi 言問橋 at top (downstream). This is from the 1953 publication, 『蟻の街の奇蹟』  “Miracle of the city of ants”, by 松居桃楼 Matsui Toru まつい とうる (1910-1994). Today this location is roughly here: Google maps

Here’s a photo of the original City of Ants (source); the cart is labeled 會の蟻, which I believe means “Congregation of Ants”, or “Association of Ants”

(4) Ants Town 2: 1960 and beyond

Ants Town agreed to leave Asakusa at the request the Tokyo government, making way for a public park. In 1960 the community moved to “No. 8 landfill” 8号埋立地 , then a damp and isolated plot of reclaimed land on the edge of Koto-ku (深川区深川枝川町地先第8号埋立地).The land is seen here in a planning document from 1964, and an aerial photo from 1945/1950.

This map shows the original location of Ants Town, followed by the new location.

And here are detailed aerial photos showing no buildings in 1945/50; by 1961/64 several structures comprising the new Ants Town are visible (these structures would remain in place until at least 1984/87).

In 1962 the church of new Ants Town was named Edagawa Catholic Church (Ant Town Church) 「カトリック枝川教会(蟻の町教会)」. The church was renamed Shiomi Catholic Church カトリック東京大司教区潮見教会 in 1985*. The Association of Ants disbanded in 1988.

* Broken link: tokyo catholic jp/english/churches/tokyo-en/16529/?print=pdf

The new Ants Town in 1963:

Today, a new church building occupies the site:

  • Name: カトリック潮見教会 / Catholic Shiomi Church
  • Address: 〒135-0052 東京都江東区潮見2-10-5 (map)
  • Nicknamed 蟻の町のマリア Ari-no-machi-no-Maria (Maria of Ants Town)
  • Website
Links & References:


  • Satoko Kitahara 北原怜子  きたはら さとこ, a.k.a. “Ari no Machi no Maria” 「蟻の町のマリア」, a.k.a. “Mary of Ants Town”
  • 蟻の街 = Ari-no-machi ありのまち, meaning “Ants Villa”, “Ant Town”, “Village of Ants”, “Town of the Ant”, “City of Ants”, etc.; also written 「アリの街」, 「アリの町」 or「蟻の町」.
  • 廃品回収 = waste recovery
  • 廃品回収業 = waste collection business
  • 廃品仕切場 = waste partition field / junkyard
  • 廃品回収業者 = junk dealer / waster recycler
  • 廃品回収業者の共同体 = waste recycling community
  • 隅田川 = Sumidagawa
  • 言問橋 = Kototoi-bashi ことといばし (Kototoi Bridge)

Beginnings and Ragpickers

Satoko and Ant Town

“Veneration” of Satoko Kitahara


Ant Town film:

Japanese YouTube:

English YouTube:



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