Monday, December 9, 2013

Memories of Japan: Mrs. Tanaka and Reiko-chan

The Tanaka family
Today is Monday, December 9, 2013.

Mrs. Tanaka was one of my best friends in Osaka.  Actually, we didn't live in the city of Osaka proper.  It was an older city, known as Sakai, and we were in the Semboku New Town area, in the south of Sakai city.  I like to tell people that Sakai was called Sakai when Osaka was still known as Naniwa.  There is a burial mound in Sakai for an ancient emperor known as Nintoku, who was, according to historical writings, the 16th emperor of Japan, and who reigned from the year 313 to 399, by our Western reckoning.  Semboku Newtown was a very new addition to Sakai City at the time.  

My husband and I went to Japan to live in January 1977, and we lived for a year with his sister, Kasumi, and her husband and son. In 1978, we moved to an apartment complex of subsidized housing run by the Osaka Prefectural government.  (A prefecture in Japan is the same as a state.  The cities of Osaka and Sakai were located in Osaka Prefecture.) The Tanaka family lived right across the hallway from us.

Notice that I didn't give you Mrs. Tanaka's first name.  That's because I don't remember it, since I never called her by her first name.  That's the way it goes in Japan.  I called her okusan (honorable wife) and she called me the same thing.  I called her husband Tanaka-san.  I called her son o-niisan (older brother), because that was his place in the family lineup.  But her daughter I called by name, Reiko-chan.  (Chan is a diminutive form of san, used with children's names.) 

The Tanaka family was from Tottori Prefecture, on the west coast of Honshu, the main island.  Mr. Tanaka was a quintessential working man.  He had done some time on a whaling boat in his youth, and had some amazing stories to tell, but when I knew him, he was driving a truck for a living.  Mrs. Tanaka was probably between 35 and 40 when this photograph was taken. Her husband was slightly older.  The son was in 6th grade at the time, and Reiko-chan was in about 4th or 5th grade.  Mrs. Tanaka did not work outside the home, but she had a few small money-making schemes that she ran out of her home, such as selling fleece blankets in the winter.  She was a great seamstress and sewed most of their clothing.  As I recall, she saved money religiously, adding small sums to her accounts at the bank and at the post office (yes, the post office also functioned as a bank) each month.  I was awed by her ability to save money, considering her husband's meager salary.

The Tanakas lived in an apartment that was the same size as ours.  Known as a "2DK" apartment, it had two rooms plus a small combined dining-kitchen area.  Of course there was also the requisite toilet room and separate bathtub room for the o-furo bath.  The two rooms were used as living rooms during the day and bedrooms at night.  Their apartment was crammed with things, with every available space used for something.  

In the family picture, I can tell that it's wintertime, because the family is sitting under the kotatsu table.  It is a table that has a heating element on the underside, with a removable top.  You put a huge quilt over the table frame that  contains the heating element, then you put the tabletop over the quilt.  You sit on zabuton cushions on the floor, with your legs under the quilt.  It's nice and cozy, and it's more of a necessity than a luxury, because there's no central heating in Japanese homes.

Reiko-chan at school.
The day my husband and I moved in, I encountered a little girl in the hallway who couldn't seem to pronounce her words very clearly.  That was Reiko-chan.  She had a speech impediment, and I later learned that she was mentally challenged.  She kept asking me my name, and I kept answering, then she would ask me again.  I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what to do about it.  Later, Mrs. Tanaka came over with some food to welcome us, but also to apologize profusely for Reiko-chan, whom she was sure must have been bothering us.  We thought she was cute, and Mrs. Tanaka seemed truly relieved to hear that we were not upset with her. 

I later learned that Japanese schools are not obligated to educate any so-called "special education" children, the way American schools are.  (No wonder their test scores are so good!  This is one reason why it's not fair to compare American schools unfavorably with the ones in Japan.)  Mrs. Tanaka looked all over Japan, and I have no idea how she did this, but she found one teacher living where we were, in Sakai, a lady by the name of Mrs. Akutagawa.  The teacher was apparently a lady who had retired from regular teaching, but who was willing to take on some special-needs kids.  She made a deal with Mrs. Tanaka.  She would teach Reiko-chan until she was ready for junior high school.  Then she would retire.  When I met Reiko-chan, she was in 4th or 5th grade, so Mrs. Tanaka was already researching schools that might take Reiko when she was ready for middle school.  I noticed that there were about four other families with special-needs children in the area, and Mrs. Tanaka told me that this was because they had heard about Mrs. Akutagawa and had moved into the area and begged her to teach their children alongside Reiko-chan.  This was why the Tanakas had come all the way from Tottori: so that Reiko-chan could go to school. 

If you look at the picture of Reiko-chan, you can see that there is a characteristic appearance common to many kids with Down Syndrome, which is probably what she would have been diagnosed with if she'd been born in the United States.  She has the facial characteristics - flat head, flat nose, eye crease, and you can see her stubby fingers and general stunted growth.  At the age of 10, she could not read, and although she could count to ten by memory, she could not actually count things.  You could put seven coins on the table and she would point to them randomly and count to ten.  Mrs. Tanaka's expectations for her daughter were fairly low.  She simply hoped that Reiko-chan could at least learn to get along with people and perhaps learn to do a simple job.  

"I won't always be here to take care of Reiko-chan," she said with a small tremor in her voice.  "I have to find a way for her to live when I'm gone." 

Mrs. Tanaka was not well-educated herself, having only gone to high school, but no farther.  The only English words she knew were "hello" and "thank you," which she pronounced "hah-ro" and "san-chuu."  She was wise in the way of the world, however, and she had a lot to teach me about being a homemaker.  She often called me to come over and have coffee, and we would sit and chat for hours, while she told me all kinds of things, including some fabulous stories about traditional Japanese ghosts.  She was very superstitious, as I recall.  

She was also incredibly traditional.  One day when her kids were at school, she and I went into Osaka to have lunch at a restaurant that served Western-style food.  We ordered and were served, and I began to eat.  Then I looked up and saw Mrs. Tanaka staring at me.  Her face seemed a little pale, so I asked her if she was not feeling well.  

"Oh, I'm all right," she said.  "I've just never eaten with a fork before.  I was just watching you to see what to do."  

She was amazed when I decided to cover the walls of my kitchen-dining area with wallpaper.  I did it entirely by myself, and I did a pretty good job of it, too, with only one tiny mistake in one corner.  Mrs. Tanaka came over and inspected my work carefully, and when she found my one mistake, she remarked, "Well, I thought you were perfect, but I see that you're just like the rest of us."  

When my marriage was dissolving and I was trying to pack my things to move to Tokyo by myself, I was so depressed that I could hardly function.  She came over and helped me pack.  "You'll need one plate, one bowl, one spoon, fork and knife," she said kindly.  "I can see you're too sad to do this.  I'll do it for you."  She packed my things while I sat and sobbed.

I left Osaka in 1981, and I left Japan in 1986.  Soon after moving to Tokyo, I lost my address book with with all my contacts in it.  That may have been a good way to make a clean break, but I often wish I could go back and find Mrs. Tanaka.  I doubt that they still live in Sakai, but you never know. I don't even remember her first name. Michiko?  Keiko?  I have no idea. And I never did know her husband's first name.  The name Tanaka is like Smith.  There are a billion of them in Japan. 

Reiko is now in her 40s, if she's still alive, and her mother is in her seventies.   I often think of them, and I hope that Reiko was able to learn a skill to earn her way in life. 

Okusan, wherever you are, I wish I could tell you how much I appreciated your friendship, how much I learned from you, and how much I admire you for the way you fought for your daughter's education.  I wish I could tell you what an impact you made on my life, and that I can still hear your voice in my head, telling me how to prepare somen noodles, how to boil rice perfectly, how to kill mold with bleach, and how to get rid of the door-to-door salesmen.  I miss you.  :-)


Gma Pat said...

Linda, i have waited for years to hear your stories of your time in Japan. Mrs. Tanaka made the denim you gave me and I have it still and think of Mrs.Tanaka each time I have it in my hands. She was like the Angel I prayed for to be with you so many miles away when I couldn't be near you. Thank you for this story. Mom

Gma Pat said...

Mrs. Tanaka's gift was a denim bag with a zipper. Mom

mettahu said...

Yes, I remember that bag. She made one for me, too. :-)