Wednesday, July 27, 2005


On a Monday morning in early August I got off the morning train hungover and needing a shower, squinted into the disgustingly bright sunshine and slouched over to the bus station to catch a ride home. The bus to Utashinai wasn't scheduled to leave for twenty minutes, and thinking that a little food might do my stomach good, I bought a rice ball from the old lady napping behind a dusty selection of boxed sweets. She handed me my change with a forced smile and promptly went back to sleep. I went outside and sat down to eat.

Unwrapping a rice ball is a delicate task when sober, nearly impossible under less than ideal conditions. Still, it was the only food I had, so taking a deep breath and making a concerted effort to focus the mind and settle my shaking hands, I ever so carefully peeled back the first strip of plastic. There was salmon filling underneath all those layers of wrapping, the best filling of all. I had paid 20 extra yen to the tired lady inside for the salmon flakes, and was damn well going to eat them.

With one strip out of the way, it was time for the most delicate part of the operation. Slowly, very slowly, I pulled back the corners centimeter by centimeter in one smooth motion. With my mouth starting to water, I made one last firm pull...and the rice ball disintegrated.

Dark green seaweed flakes littered the front of my shirt. Salmon was scattered across my lap. The biggest chunk of rice lay on the grimy bus station seat next to me. A dark cloud passed in front of the sun.

Using English not featured in the One World Text Book series, I picked up the chunk of rice, checked it for visible dirt and ate it. Japan is a clean country, I figured, foraging among the folds of my clothes for rice grains and salmon slivers. Utterly engrossed in my breakfast it was a shock to notice a Japanese man leaning over my shoulder. He was probably in his early 30s, with jug ears sticking out from under a baseball cap three sizes too big. His mouth was open slightly, lower lip protruding, and he was staring unabashed.

Of course, if I came across an unkempt Japanese kid with hamburger all over himself eating bits of bun from a bus station floor in rural Vermont, I probably would have stared too. But there was something about the look on this guy's face that was a

Glancing to each side, I realized that my companion was not alone. About a dozen young men were filing into the waiting area, some with coke bottle glasses, some staring at their own nose, some listening intently to headphones. As the bus to Utashinai pulled into the lot and everyone lined up to get on, it hit me. I was commuting with the Central Sorachi Center for the Mentally Ill.

In line for the bus, I brushed off a few stray grains of rice and said good morning to the man next to me.

"Good morning," he replied. "I've never seen you before. Is this your first day?"

Miyazaki-san, as my new friend was called, had been riding this bus between his parent's home in Sunagawa and the Center every weekday morning since graduating from high-school 14 years ago. Despite staring at me earlier, he wasn't particulary concerned about my background. I was just another new member of the Center, albeit slightly more disabled than most judging from my language and eating abilities. During the thirty minute bus ride, Miyazaki-san took it upon himself to begin my orientation.

"There are 38 of us," he began. "Sasaki-san is the leader. He lives at the Center. Good thing you're here. It's a busy time of year. Not easy to weed the fields in all this heat!"

An argument was going on in front of us. "I tell you, it rained yesterday," insisted a young man, staring bug eyed at a gray haired, pinch faced fellow who could not stop giggling.

"It was sunny all day. A little wind early," said the giggler.

"That's a lie! I was working outside and it rained and I had to put on my raincoat!" The young man was getting worked up. "Yesterday! Rain!"

"S..s...s....s...sunny," giggled his companion.

"Oi! Sato-san," shouted the worker who had gotten wet, turning to a fat man gazing soulfully out the window. "It rained yesterday, didn't it! Yesterday! It rained! Tell him it rained!"

"I don't remember," mumbled Sato, still staring into the air above the rice fields.

The pinched face man giggled harder.

Miyazaki-san was paying no attention to the debate. "You need to go to the bus terminal in Sunagawa every morning," he said. "It's very important to get on the bus. Who knows what would happen if you missed the bus!" The idea was making him nervous.

I wasn't sure whether I was going to get off at the Center or not. Part of me was intrigued at the idea of playing along for a bit, but as the driver announced the stop I decided to continue home and take a shower. The morning had been strange enough already. However, as it turned out though, I had failed to considered one crucial factor: Miyazaki-san. From his perspective, I was a new patient, a personal responibility. There was no way Miyazaki-san was letting me stay on the bus alone.

My companions slowly filed out the door. The driver thanked each one of them quite formally, giving a slight bow as they deposited the fare. Miyazaki-san hovered over me, the picture of concern. “Time to get off,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I stuttered a series of apologies, and his eyes betrayed a flash of anger.

The two protagonists of the debate over yesterday’s weather were stepping onto the curb, which meant we were the only passengers still on the bus. The driver swiveled his head around and looked at us, his face a mask of politeness. “Hai, doozo,” he said over the speaker system. “Go ahead.” Clearly, he was not accustomed to carrying passengers on this route as far as central Utashinai. The time to act was now.

The best adventures are never planned. Memorable conclusions are the result of mistaken assumptions more often than not. Travelers in Europe will often tell you that the best part of their journey evolved from a late night decision to head for the station, wave a Rail Pass at the ticket window and hop whatever train was leaving next, destination unknown, plans unrehearsed. Columbus assumed that the world was one-seventh its actual size. Many said he was dead-crazy-wrong, and they were right. Now, someone was assuming that I was mentally deficient. Maybe it was the spirit of discovery, or maybe I just couldn’t think of a way to pacify an apoplectic Miyazaki-san, but I got off the bus.

“You’ve got to follow my lead,” he was saying, walking rapidly up the sidewalk to catch up with the others. “Everything will be fine if you just go along with what I tell you, is that understood?”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, attempting to pacify my mentor with polite ritualisms. “I am indebted to you. But, you see, I am an American. I am an English teacher.”

Miyazaki-san frowned. Clearly, this new arrival was a difficult case. “America is very far, isn’t it,” he said finally. “Very far away indeed.” He was wondering how someone unable to speak properly or navigate a simple bus route by himself could possibly travel to Japan from America.

“Very far,” I said cheerfully, feeling that we were making progress towards mutual understanding, but Miyazaki-san had decided I must be delusional, and changed the subject.

“Some days are for working outside,” he said. “The greenhouses are over there, and there’s other vegetable fields in back. We grow corn, tomato, eggplant, onion, lettuce, soybean, cucumber…the rice is all across the road.”

Already, men in sun hats and tall rubber boots were striding out into the fields of rice, hooking up irrigation equipment and methodically removing stray weeds. Tall silhouettes of thick corn stalks and tomato vines heavy with ripe fruit were visible through plastic greenhouse walls. The vegetable gardens were spotless, the plants evenly spaced, row after row of dark, leafy eggplants and conical green pillars of beans stretching across the meadow to the edge of the pines. I thought of my little garden back home, baby zucchinis choked by exuberant weeds, fallen tomato plants and thirsty eggplants struggling to produce a single malnourished fruit. The workers here might not be able to name the four islands of Japan, but looking at their flourishing produce, I was the one who began to feel inadequate.

“There’s cleaning duty every two weeks,” Miyazaki-san was saying as we entered the main building and removed our shoes. I slipped into a pair of plastic footwear available to accommodate guests and looked around half nervously and half hopefully for a receptionist, superintendent or other authority figure who could instantly put a stop to this little charade. Apart from a white haired man with unfocused eyes dully running a vacuum cleaner across the linoleum, this part of the building was empty.

Miyazaki-san impatiently motioned me over to a small table under a bulletin board, where he carefully printed his name in neat ideograms, then pointed for me to do the same, frowning at my sloppy katakana. “Te-i-mu,” he read, holding the sheet up to the light. “Teimu….Teimu…” He was scanning a typewritten notice on the bulleting board.

“Your name isn’t posted,” he said apologetically. “I’ll check with Tanaka. He’s in charge of scheduling. For now you can just follow me. I’m assigned to the store today, just my luck, when it’s sunny outside.”

He led me down the hall, past the old man and his vacuum cleaner and through a door that opened into a wooden building that was an oversized version of a roadside farm stand. Fresh vegetables were arranged in shining displays in the front half of the building, while various arts and crafts that the residents made during the winter collected dust on shelves in the back. After unlocking the entrance and inspecting the vegetables for signs of rot, Miyazaki-san sat himself down at a small desk and produced a plastic pail for me to sit on.

And so we sat. Apparently the stress of dealing with me had put my companion in no mood for conversation. Miyazaki-san gave no sign that he was aware of my presence, but I knew that any attempt to leave would send him into a fit.

Customers trickled in and out, none of them paying me the slightest attention. Miyazaki-san carefully wrote down their purchases in an old fashioned ledger, carefully placing the bills and change in a wooden cash box. For the first hour I prayed that no one I knew would come into the shop, and for the next two hours I prayed that someone would recognize me. There was nothing to do but stare at the vegetables and think.

As far as I could tell, the Central Sorachi Institute for the Mentally Ill was an entirely self contained organization. The residents themselves functioned as administrators, workers and trainers. Although responsibility and funding must have been organized somewhere in the vast recesses of the Japanese bureaucracy, the thriving vegetable gardens were a strong indication that the residents were doing a perfectly fine job managing things by themselves.

In Ken Kesey's brilliant novel One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, patients at a mental hospital in America are stripped of their independence and judged incapable of performing the simplest act of personal responsibility. Hints of self-assertion are medicated and belittled until the men conform to the staff’s vision of dependent infantilism. Miyazaki-san, the vacuum pusher and the weather debaters were clearly disabled, but were given responsibility for their own affairs and maintained a functional community in which they could take pride. I was reminded of the Japanese elementary school children who make sure their classmates are sitting up straight at the start of a lesson while the teacher sits quietly in the back of the room. Japan is a country that puts great emphasis on conformity, but I am continually surprised by how little authority figures force their wishes on subordinates. For most Japanese, the urge to conform and to be a productive member of the community is an internal impulse. I wondered how long Americans – disabled or not – could be left unsupervised in the vegetable market without a tomato fight breaking out.

After three hours of sitting on my stool next to the silent Miyazaki-san I decided enough was enough. “Excuse me,” I said, smiling nervously and standing up. “I’m leaving. I’m going home. I’m very sorry. Thank you for everything.”

Miyazaki-san’s eyes bulged. “At six!” he said. “Six o clock is the time to go home.”

I started for the door. He jumped from his desk and ran in front of me, highly agitated. It wasn’t possible. I couldn’t just walk away as long as Miyazaki-san saw me as his responsibility. Subterfuge was in order.

“Oh, “I said laughing. I didn’t mean that I’m going home. I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back!”

“It’s this way,” said Miyazaki-san suspiciously, heading for door to the main building. “I’ll show you.”

“But who will watch the store?” I asked innocently. “What if customers come and no one is here?”

Miyazaki-san was uncertain. “You can go at lunch time. One hour.”

“I’m so sorry, it’s urgent,” I said, plumbing the depths of my Japanese ability. “I’ll be right back.

“To the left,” said Miyazaki-san. “Don’t get lost.”

I took a deep breath and surveyed the main hall. The white haired man was asleep in a chair next to his vacuum, but otherwise the room was empty. Tip-toeing hurriedly to the entrance way, I pulled on my shoes, peeked outside and ran for the bus stop, doubled over like a soldier trying to make it into the next trench.

After half an hour of hiding in the little shed ready to run for the fields if Miyazaki-san came looking for me, an empty bus pulled around the corner. The driver welcomed me aboard, his face still a mask of politeness, and the two of us rolled up the valley into Utashinai.


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