By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
Before retirement, Dr. Janet Higuchi Hironaka was an educator who’d work more than 40 years as a secondary school English teacher, mostly with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Today, she is a clown.
She is Tiny Bubble, a volunteer hospital clown who brings joy and laughter to those she meets.
Hironaka never banked on becoming a clown.
“Somebody I met at Curves (exercise class) wanted me to go,” said Hironaka. “She’s a retired pediatrician. And she’s a regular clown, who loves it. Her clown name is Pok-A-Doc. She wanted me to take this clown class. It was free, and because I’m always a sucker for new ideas, I went.”
Hironaka enrolled in “Clowns on Rounds,” a unique volunteer program sponsored by the Torrance Memorial Hospital, which is the only hospital in the South Bay region to offer clown training. Classes are free except for a $25 fee to cover material and make-up costs.
Hironaka initially attended classes, thinking she’d give the program a try and move on. The six-week course, taught by Joyce Payne, covered everything from thinking and acting like a clown to putting on make-up and creating a costume.
But during the course of the six week, Hironaka fell in love with clowning. “I found out that I liked it because it fuses things I like to do,” said Hironaka. “It tapped into my love of puppetry, my love of story telling, my love of improvisation and drama.”
Hironaka also learned that hospital clowns were not merely party clowns in a different setting. In the clown world, they are considered “caring clowns,” who work with sick people or in hospital settings.
“As a hospital clown, it’s not just about being silly,” said Hironaka. “It’s about caring about people, reading the situation and reaching out.
“As a hospital clown, we also have to be mindful of the whole hospital environment, from the patient to the staff, and obeying certain rules like washing our hands regularly. And if I’m in clown and you come in as a visitor and you want to know where this or that is, I should be able to stop and direct you. If I can’t do that, I shouldn’t be there.”
To Hironaka, clowning, then, became serious business. She enrolled in the hospital’s general volunteer training program, which most people take before participating in the “Clowns on Rounds” program. The general volunteer training course takes about two months.
“We have to go through this training to be a volunteer to know what we can and can’t do,” said Hironaka.
Once she completed the volunteer training program, she was ready for the next step. She put on her clown uniform she designed and followed an established clown.
“We couldn’t speak, but we could shadow,” said Hironaka. “We’re in make-up, and we tag along.”
The final portion of the clown program was the most difficult. “This is where I get in full clown and I get shadowed,” said Hironaka. “It’s almost like student teaching.”
All through this process Hironaka continued to flesh out her clown character. She settled on the clown name of Tiny Bubble.
Initially, she considered the name Tiny Bubbles, in reference to Don Ho’s popular song by the same name and a tribute to her Hawaiian roots. But another person in her class chose the name, Bubbles, so she dropped the ‘s’ and chose Tiny Bubble.
For her clown uniform, she started browsing the Goodwill, which is where most of the clowns begin formulating their uniform.
“I couldn’t find what I wanted so I went to Jo-Ann’s (Fabric and Craft Store) and found fabric that I liked and sewed my own costume,” said Hironaka.
Her clown costume continues to evolve. “Every time I find something that I like, I put it on,” said Hironaka. “I used to have a red wig but it was so uncomfortable so I found this green hat that I really like and I wear green socks.”
When Hironaka learned that Pok-A-Doc had her face designed by a clown master, Hironaka decided to do the same.
“The face that I wear is not the one that I designed for myself,” said Hironaka. “I had one designed by Tango the Clown of San Diego.”
Hironaka’s specialty prop is a monkey puppet. “I carry a little miniature monkey that has a little voice,” said Hironaka. “He squeaks. My son gave me the squeaker. And the monkey tells me what to do, so I don’t’ know ahead of time what I’m going to do with the people I come in contact with.”
She also wrote up a clown biography for Tiny Bubble. “I wanted to create somebody I could like — somebody who could do some of the things my natural self couldn’t do,” said Hironaka. “My natural self isn’t silly.”
In fact, between her husband, Hiram, and herself, she said her husband was the funny one. Her husband is an instructor at El Camino College.
“He sees humor in everything,” said Hironaka. “He has students, who sit and listen, not necessarily because they want to learn but because they don’t want to miss out on the jokes. He’s a natural clown. I’m not. But I’m the one that learned the tools of the trade. I don’t have to be funny but I learned the secrets of being funny.”
Her husband has been very supportive of her new venture.
“No matter what I do, if it’s important to me, he goes along with it,” said Hironaka.
In total, it took Hironaka a year to become a full-fledged hospital clown.
Today, she and her partner volunteer at Torrance Memorial once a month. Preparation for the day begins hours before she even sets foot in the hospital.
“It takes me two hours to really get dressed,” said Hironaka. “I have to eat breakfast before I put anything on. I can’t have anything on my skin. After breakfast, I put on my basic clothes and have to do the white make-up first, powder it and then put all the trimmings on.”
Hironaka has no particular age group that she favors but she enjoys visiting the waiting and emergency rooms.
“I like going to the waiting room because a lot the people are tired or bored so I could tease them a little bit and make them laugh and move on,” said Hironaka. “If I go into the emergency room and somebody is bandaged up and bleeding a little bit, I’ll just talk to them.”
As in her teaching career, Hironaka is in the minority. She is the only Asian American clown among the 15 or so clowns at Torrance Memorial. The rest are all white, with the exception of the instructor, who is African American.
“I know once in a while, not often, but somebody, an Asian American worker or patient will treat me very warmly because they could see my skin color,” said Hironaka. “And the Filipino nurses will call out to me when I’m walking the halls, ‘Tiny Bubble. Tiny Bubble is here.’”
One aspect Hironaka had to get used to was the reaction she was getting from the public. “As a Japanese American, I was tall,” said Hironaka. “At my prime, I was 5’4”. I’ve shrunk to 5’1” as I’ve gotten older…Now, when I go to the hospital, everybody responds to me like a cute little thing. It’s counter to my own self-perception. People tell me, ‘Your face is so adorable,’ or things like that, and that’s the hard part for me. I’m not used to being told I’m cute.”
Some of Hironaka’s memorable clowning moments involved former students, who recognized her from her distinct voice.
One time, Hironaka was taking a lunch break at the Torrance Memorial Hospital cafeteria.
“I don’t remember what I said but I said something and the gal I was speaking with, who was in office clothes, not in scrubs or a lab coat, looked at me,” said Hironaka. “She goes, ‘I know you.’
“She recognized my voice, and she started crying. She told me how much I had affected her (as a teacher), and now, as an adult, she has teenagers in high school who are the age she was when she was with me. She was remembering all this and just crying. I didn’t expect that.”
Another time, Hironaka went into the waiting room for families of surgery patients and started performing for an Asian American family.
“After I did my trick, then all of a sudden one of the women in the group grabbed my hand and said, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’” said Hironaka. “I don’t look while I’m performing, but she was someone from my past, a student.”
Another time, Hironaka approached a young man intensely texting on his cell phone.
“I asked him, ‘Have you seen a dog around here?’” recalled Hironaka. “He said, ‘A dog? No.’ Then, I said, ‘Hmm… because I found this poo.”
Hironaka stuck out a Winnie-the Pooh stuffed animal.
“The young man laughed long and hard. Then he flipped out a business card and he said, ‘I don’t have my usual one but bring this in and you can get a free appetizer.’”
Turned out that the man was the general manager of a local restaurant, who was waiting for someone undergoing surgery.
“It’s such a wonderful thing to make people laugh,” said Hironaka.
CHOPSTICKS & BAKED POTATO
Clowning apparently runs in the family. Decades ago, Hironaka’s second daughter attended the Fresno School of Clownology as part of her major in recreational therapy.
Her daughter chose Chopsticks as her clown name.
“I made her costume,” said Hironaka. “It’s a white jacket with red and yellow buttons, a bow tie and black pants.”
At that time, Hironaka never dreamt she’d end up as a clown as well.
Chopsticks, however, is on hiatus. Hironaka’s daughter’s job situation as a Fresno State executive administrator leaves her little time for clowning.
All three of Hironaka’s children have been supportive of her new role as Tiny Bubble and frequently send her items to add to Tiny Bubble’s repertoire.
“My kids were worried that when I retired I’m not going to find anything as satisfying as teaching,” said Hironaka.
Hironaka’s son, who is an engineer and a magician on the side, even taught her something new about the bottles of bubble suds she carries with her on her clown rounds.
“I was telling him that when I use the bubbles, sometimes the bubbles come out, sometimes they don’t,” said Hironaka. “Then, he said, ‘That’s understandable, mom.’ He said commercial suds are probably made in Mexico or China or somewhere else, and the ratio between water, detergent and glycerin needs to be changed with the condition of the atmosphere so what works over there, doesn’t mean it works here because something has changed.”
More recently, one of Hironaka’s daughters asked her to appear as Tiny Bubble at her birthday party. Hironaka was initially hesitant since Tiny Bubble was not a party clown. She worked around this by creating a new character, which her granddaughter dubbed, “Baked Potato,” at the party.
“Baked Potato does all the party stuff,” said Hironaka. “We made origami. We had a kazoo band. Tiny Bubble has never done those things.”
But Baked Potato almost didn’t happen. The suitcase containing Baked Potato’s uniform went missing on the trip to Hironaka’s daughter’s house, which is in Northern California.
Not wanting to let the party attendees down, Hironaka improvised with regular make-up and whatever clothes she still had.
Everyone except her brother was surprised by Hironaka’s transformation. “When I brought out Baked Potato at the party, my daughter’s friends were half shocked, half impressed, and they wanted to know how come I would do such a thing,” said Hironaka. “And my brother opened his mouth and said it’s no surprise she’s doing this.”
As college students, Hironaka’s brother majored in engineering, while Hironaka chose a non-traditional double major in English and speech drama.
“As an English major, I had to take all the lit classes, all the advance writing classes,” said Hironaka. “As a speech drama major, I had to take all the advance speech classes, all the performance classes and I even took classes in acting and directing. And when you take those classes, you’ve got to be a part of the college production so I used to go read for some of the roles.”
However, once Hironaka graduated and focused on her education career, she became more analytical and left-brain heavy. She believes clowning has helped her tap back into her creative side, the right side of her brain, balancing her out.
Clowning also re-affirmed her doctorate dissertation research and her personal experience as an educator: that the U.S. educational system was too linear, and that thinking was closely connected to the emotions.
Hironaka shared this with her clown mentor, Joyce Payne who had sent Hironaka a surprise package in the mail. The package came at an opportune time since Hironaka had just returned from her trip from her daughter’s home in Northern California where her suitcase, with all her medication and Baked Potato’s uniform, had gone missing.
The package contained a bottle of touchable bubbles that had sat on Payne’s desk for two years but which she only recently felt compelled to mail to Hironaka. The appearance of the surprise package suddenly made Hironaka’s gloom disappear.
“If emotional passion is closely related to how well we learn, and if passion is personally related to how happy we are and engaging in everything, then passion can help us get smarter,” said Hironaka. “I wrote this to Joyce and said clowning and making people laugh really helps makes everybody smarter.”
One day, Hironaka hopes to take her clowning to her HMO and visit that hospital on a regular basis.
“I would do that in appreciation for what they’ve done for me,” said Hironaka, a breast cancer survivor.
Hironaka’s cancer had been detected during a routine mammogram. A biopsy revealed she had the more aggressive form of cancer and she underwent a lumpectomy and a once-a-month drug infusion for a year. She also had radiation treatment and is undergoing hormonal therapy.
Now that she is in remission, she considers clowning as one way of giving back to the medical community but the rewards have outweighed her efforts.
“The hospital is not a people friendly place,” said Hironaka. “Many people are nervous or upset, not knowing how their loved ones will fare. Many people are tired of waiting or just impatient. But every time I go, at least one person stops and says, ‘Thank you for what you do.’
“I never thought it would be so satisfying to actually see someone smile. I never thought I would experience so much gratitude.”
Tiny Bubble’s uniform is also undergoing a change. “Ever since I became a breast cancer survivor, I started to favor pink, so I’m going to go all pink,” said Hironaka. “I already bought the shoes. That’s the hardest part, you know, finding shoes.”
More recently, Hironaka came up with a “dedication day” idea.
“Instead of giving my doctors candy, I tell them I am dedicating this day to you,” said Hironaka. “I tell them a certain day. And I tell them that on that day, I’ll be at Torrance Memorial and I’m going to clown in your name and every smile and every giggle, every laugh is going to be yours.
“Then I try to remember something that happened that day, and I write about it on a card…and then I say thank you very much and send it to them.”