Impairment, Fear and Self-loathing in an Osaka Internet Cafe

Sometimes I need help.  This is something that people with a disability are not meant to say, but the fact is I do sometimes need help.  Whether it be difficulties in walking from A to B, or getting a seat on the train, or help with carrying shopping home, here in the Land of the Rising Sun I, as a disabled person am often reliant on the kindness of others and those others are often strangers.  Japan, rightly or wrongly is seen as a ‘polite’ country, but even taking that into account, I often think the following:  It must be difficult for the Japanese people to help me sometimes.

In the last month or so, my impairment, my cerebral palsy, has been causing me problems, my left leg in particular has becomes so stiff and painful, that I now find it difficult to walk some days. One of the worst aspects of pain is that it can force you to be overly self-concerned, to focus on your body and your own well-being to the exclusion of others. You can become mean, you begin to view the world in a kind of instrumentalist way, you know have to do so much to fulfil your work obligations in a day, eat so much to avoid starvation, hopefully at some point you can schedule some fun or rest. Quite frankly pain can make you socially inert to outright selfish, when you have to focus some much on your body to navigate the world, it easy to ignore world itself. If you are not careful you can become either blind or a little too used to the little acts of kindness that make your day easier, and after a recent visit to an Internet café in Umeda Osaka (where many of my articles are written), I realised that I had allowed my physical malady to turn me into a selfish human being.

Consider the following scene: You work at an Internet café, a middle aged westerner arrives. He walks down the stairs, and asks for a room for a couple of hours. He wants a computer, TV, a non-smoking cubicle and all you can drink when it comes to soft drinks.  So far this is a commonplace scenario, many foreigners use Internet cafes, so it’s no big deal right?

Well it is and it isn’t.  Let’s modify the scene a little.  Let’s imagine you work at an Internet café, and a middle aged westerner arrives.  Only this middle aged westerner limps downs the stairs to approach you at the customer service counter, looking like he could physically collapse at any moment.  He also asks for computer, TV, a non-smoking cubicle and the all you can drink in atrociously bad Japanese, and staggers towards his assigned place in the establishment.  A few hours pass and the physically encumbered westerner turns to leave, he pays his X amount of Yen for his time at the computer and begins to make his exit.  And he really struggles walking up the stairs, pausing for a few seconds on every stair.  You decide to help him up the stairs, supporting his left side as he walks.

My reaction though, I am sad to say was initially to be afraid. My fear partly came from the fact that I hadn’t noticed her walk up behind me on the stairs until she held me arm, and had prised my rucksack off my shoulders. I almost said what are you doing?  It was only when I turned and saw her, all smiles, saying ‘Daijoubu desu ka [You OK?]?’ that I relaxed; I simply was not expecting such a kindness.  I felt both silly and ashamed.

I felt really guilty for the way I reacted, even though it was a reaction which remained unspoken – though not necessarily unexpressed, I’m sure my body language spoke volumes even if I said nothing through words. She was trying to help me and yet I, initially at least, viewed her kindness as an intrusion, perhaps even as an assault.  True, maybe it is partly not my fault – I could not see or hear approaching, but that my reaction was one of fear still troubles me.  Had I become, albeit out of necessity, so concerned with my physical condition, so focussed on the humdrum of life, the getting from A to B that I had simply not even considered friendly engagement with hitherto unmet others a possibility?

Some might think what my little helper did a rather ordinary act; I needed help andwas given it, and in an ideal world, we would consider her behaviour to be normal rather than kind, yet I think it takes a special kind of courage. Consider the situation from her point of view, to approach a stranger, who is obviously non-Japanese, so there is a possibility of language barrier, and is physically encumbered (a rare thing to see in a westerner) and offer to help. There are often many reasons not to offer help at the best of times, whether it be a concern for your own safety or well-being, or because you simply have not got the time to help. I’m not sure in all fairness that I could do the same if the roles were reversed, so upon reflection, I see what she did to be most extraordinary.

I only wish I had had the presence of mind to say thank you.

Giving up your seat on a train is a public affair

By Michael Gillan Peckitt in The Japan Times

A recent article in the media in Japan about the attitudes and behavior of able-bodied passengers toward reserved seating on trains reminded me of one of the few negative experiences I have endured as a disabled foreigner in Japan, and it pertains to the tricky art of acquiring use of the “priority seats.”

For the uninitiated, priority seats are those put aside for the disabled, elderly, pregnant and the young — usually a couple of benches at the end of each carriage. People often do give up a seat to those in need, save for the odd salaryman, who either pretends to be asleep or, on occasion, is drinking a can of beer.

If the latter is the case, the said salaryman is sometimes met by death stares from his fellow natives that seem to say, “Stop letting the side down.” It is quite heartening, actually, to see such concern for the collective self-image. The article pointed out that able-bodied passengers in Tokyo will often sit, at least until a person in need arrives, whereas people in Sapporo would often stand, even if the appropriate person in need never arrives.

It might surprise the reader to learn that, as a disabled person, despite the laudable intentions of the commuters of Sapporo, I prefer the Tokyo way of doing things, at least in this respect. When people do not or cannot sit on these seats, they stand just in front of them, often blocking access to the seat. This is not their fault — there may be nowhere to sit down — but it can make someone who is prone to involuntary muscle spasms worry that the commuter standing in front of them may fall victim to an unexpected and completely uncontrollable whacking. Of course, people might not be sitting down for a variety of reasons — maybe they only have a couple of station stops before home, and therefore don’t see the point.

When I first moved to Japan, rather than question their motives and actions, I simply thought that my hosts must be very gracious, often giving up their seats for me. They are kind, but recently I have noticed another aspect to the act — something that hints at a darker side to the exchange: the possibility that some Japanese people have a savior complex when it comes to surrendering seats.

The act of giving up your seat is a very public affair: You get up and give your seat to another commuter; if the train is busy, people may have to make room for you as you get up and they sit down, so people do notice when you give up your seat. That it is noticed imbues the act with a certain performative character, almost as if the one giving up is playing the central role in the play — “helping the unfortunate on the train.” There are certain rules and moves to this role, which, like a kabuki actor, you must execute with no deviation from the script. Let me talk you through the play.

Firstly, once you accept the role of seat giver-upper, you may show no signs of physical fatigue yourself. You may not sweat, sigh, yawn or show any signs of fatigue at all. It would simply be bad form to give up your seat to the physically encumbered and then look like you were complaining that you were tired. The person for whom the seat is being given up also begins their role at this point, and their first act is to accept the seat: Even if you do not need it, you must endure the comfy chair. Refusal to do so will be met with disappointment, disbelief and sometimes anger from the giver-upper. I have in fact been struck once for refusing the gesture.

Secondly, you may not sit down, even if another seat becomes available. That’s right — you chose to be a Good Samaritan, and giving up your seat means you can never get it back: You are condemned to a vertical train journey. Even if most of the seats are free in the priority section and the person you gave it up for has left the train, at least your fellow commuters will notice your act of generosity: Your transition to Savior of the Priority Seats commences.

Now, the third act: You must stand in front of the person who now occupies your seat, hanging from the handles. Why be charitable unless you can guilt the person you helping? That is the only reason I can think of to explain why people do this. If they were trying to help me as a disabled person they would sit down, and therefore be out of my way. But, no, I’ve found that even if you motion toward an empty seat, they will not take it: The role of seat giver-upper apparently requires martyrdom.

And so to the finale of this piece of theater, although since it is lesser performed, perhaps we should consider it an optional encore. I have had the dubious pleasure of seeing it at least twice, most memorably performed by a 30-something man on the Keio Inokashira Line traveling from Shibuya to Komaba-Todaimae, and, again, a few months ago, by an elderly woman on a Kyoto-bound train in Osaka. This is the part where our hero can expect lots of gratitude for their act of charity.

Being brought up to mind my Ps and Qs, I begrudge no one a few thank yous. However, there are some for whom, it seems at least, thank yous are not enough. In each instance, I thanked them with a single thank you and they looked visibly upset. I paused, bowed and repeated the thanks. I could swear a smile of relief rather than gratitude appeared on their faces. I imagine they thought: “I came on this train, sat down, then got up and with the selflessness of samurai facing battle, gave up my seat to the disabled foreigner. I stood there, eschewing the empty seats so that people could see me giving up my seat and recognize me as the Savior of the Priority Seats, and all I got for that was one measly thank you? Unbelievable!” Well no, actually, that’s just being a good person. Enjoy your journey. Mine’s the next stop.