OCHAZUKE: A Voice from Within

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gwen for webBy GWEN MURANAKA

I miss bookstores: the smell of paper, the hours browsing through the shelves looking for the next good read, the thrill of discovering a new author. That joy of spontaneous discovery is mostly missing in this age of Amazon.

When I lived in Tokyo, books were small treasures handed from one person to the next, along with videotapes of “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” I would catch up on my reading on the train to work. Sometimes I’d wonder what the Japanese around me thought of the weird Japanese girl making her way through “Last Train to Memphis” or “100 Years of Solitude.”

In Ebisu there is a used bookstore called Good Day Books, where a lot of gaijin would go to pick up or sell their paperbacks. While the mammoth Kinokuniya in Shinjuku has a decent selection of foreign books, the small used bookstore had the shambling vibe of a shop owned and curated for the foreign reader. The atmosphere was contemplative. BBC Radio softly played classical, as you thumbed through dog-eared copies of Stephen King or James Ellroy. Thrillers seemed to be the favorites, although occasionally you’d make unusual finds, like the odd biography or travelogue.

Being so far away from home, I tended to read about America of all things. In retrospect, it was a way of dealing with the feeling of isolation and otherness that comes with living in a foreign country. So for those years I’d spend my hours with the late historian Stephen Ambrose, whose book on D-Day so vividly captures the chaos on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, or former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl’s delicious memoir on her evolution as a sensualist and foodie.

the reason i jumpI’m incapable of that kind of sustained focus for the most part these days. A gaijin on the Yamanote today would use that commute time to text friends or catch up on the latest news on her iPhone. When I can will myself to read for fun these days, it’s a treat. Maybe I’m old, but at times I miss the quiet isolation of the printed page.

That solace of the written word is more remarkable when the author is trapped within the confines of his own body, unable to communicate his true feelings. That’s what I thought when I read “The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism.” (2013, Random House Publishing Group) by Naoki Higashida. Higashida, who is autistic, wrote the book when he was just 13 with the assistance of his mother and a grid of hiragana characters and numbers.

The format is less a cohesive narrative, than a series of questions and answers, with Higashida giving voice to the thoughts of the severely autistic. He sounds like a kid still processing his feelings when he answers questions like, “Why do you do things you shouldn’t even when you’ve been told a million times not to?” For parents of children with autism, there most be comfort and understanding in Higashida’s affirming words.

I’m not sure if any one person can speak for an entire group, no matter how sincere, but Higashida certainly writes his own experience of autism with clarity and intelligence. It struck me that author David Mitchell and his Japanese wife, KA Yoshida, who have a child with autism, initially decided to translate the volume to share with friends. The experiences of a multiracial family dealing with cultural differences as well a condition such as autism must be at times terribly lonely.

Higashida writes: “I’ve learned that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness. For us, you see, having autism is normal — so we can’t know for sure what our ‘normal’ is even like. But so long as we can learn to love ourselves, I’m not sure how much it matters whether we’re normal or autistic.”

Autistic or “normal,” they are lovely thoughts that speak to universal yearnings for happiness and connection.

Gwen Muranaka is Rafu English editor-in-chief and can be reached at [email protected] Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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