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.