Friday, August 19, 2005

Committed, Part 2

My companions slowly filed off the bus. 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. Miyazaki-san was not getting off the bus without me.

The two protagonists of the debate over yesterday’s weather were stepping onto the curb, which meant we were the only two 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 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 also 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 the white 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. Miyazaki-san carefully placed his in a small locker. I slipped into a pair of plastic footwear available to accommodate guests, scanning half nervously and half hopefully for a receptionist, superintendent or other authority who could instantly put a stop to this little charade, but 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. “Teimu,” 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 posted 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 looked like an oversized version of a roadside farm stand. Fresh vegetables were arranged in shining displays that filled the front half of the building, while various arts and crafts that the residents made during the winter tool up shelve room in the back corner. After unlocking the front 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 if I tried to leave the building he would be watching me like a sumo wrestler watches his dinner.

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, depositing 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. There was nothing to do but look at the vegetables and think.

As far as I could tell, the entire Central Sorachi Institute for the Mentally Disabled was an entirely self contained organization. The residents were the administrators, workers and trainers, as Miyazaki-san was demonstrating. Although responsibility and funding must have been organized somewhere in the vast recesses of Japanese bureaucracy, if the thriving vegetable gardens and spotless interiors were any indication, the residents were doing a perfectly fine job managing things by themselves.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, patients at a mental hospital in America are kept neutered, stripped of their independence, judged utterly incapable of the simplest act of self-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 handicapped, but were given responsibility for their own affairs and maintained a functional community they could take pride in. I was reminded of elementary school children making 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 and self-responsibility, but I am continually surprised by how little authority figures force their wishes on subordinates. For most Japanese, the urge to conform, 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.

The minutes ticked by while I mused about Japanese cultural tendencies, but 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 in front of his eyes 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 under enemy fire trying to make it into the next trench.

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


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Tim, what a story, what an adventure......

1:40 PM  

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