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"A fascinating and inspiring account of a heroic life."-Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
"A lovely, uplifting book ... Well worth reading."-Joanne Woodward
"Couldn't be more refreshing."-Los Angeles Times
"A powerful never-say-die attitude."-Washington Post
"A heart-warming memoir."-Kirkus Reviews
"Caused a major electric shock in his won country."-L'Express
"An incredible zest for life."-Sunday Times (Singapore)
A Little Tyrant
Our life as a family of three began in a place called Kasai in Edogawa Ward, on the eastern boundary of Tokyo. My parents had just moved to the area and didn't know anyone there. I've heard of parents who hide the very existence of a disabled child by keeping him shut up at home, but mine certainly didn't. They took me out and about with them all the time so the neighbors could get acquainted with me. My arms and legs are about eight inches long now, but in those days they were potato-like bumps on my torso. My resemblance to a toy bear made me an instant favorite in the neighborhood. (I've heard of "He's the cutest little doll" as a compliment for a baby, but "He's the cutest little stuffed animal," now that's a new one!)
I had already begun to exercise my talents as a problem child. I never, ever slept. I cried fiercely all through the night, despite the fact that I didn't sleep much in the daytime. My bleary-eyed mother thought she was headed for a nervous breakdown. I earned the nickname Napoleon, after the hero who is said to have commanded his troops on just three or four hours of sleep.
I also drank way too little formula—about half the right amount for my age, according to a child-care book my mother read. That just had to be too little. My usually calm parents anxiously sought the doctors' advice, but I went right on drinking the same amount. Perhaps ready to give up by this time, they tried a new approach.
"He's been highly individual ever since he was born," they decided. "Soit's no wonder he needs a different amount of formula or sleep. Let's stop comparing him with other children."
That was pretty cool. And sure enough, in spite of getting so little sleep and formula, I grew rapidly and was never sick.
At nine months, I produced my first word. All I'd done till then was babble, but suddenly I went, "Happapa, happapapa, papa, papa." My mother was a little put out that my first word was "papa," but she kept telling herself that it was simply easier to say. And my parents were very happy that I'd started to talk.
From then on, they say, it was as though a dam had burst. By my first birthday I was known as Chatterbox Hiro. My father entertained himself giving me "lessons" with a set of wooden picture blocks he'd bought. He would show me one with a washing machine on it and ask, "What's this?"
"What's this, then?"
And so forth. These classes took place every evening when my father came home from the office.
My mother, meanwhile, had seen an article in the paper that warned, "Not reading to your child amounts to giving him or her a frontal lobotomy," which prompted her to read to me in every spare moment, They were both pretty education-minded parents.
A year or so earlier, they had resigned themselves to the idea that I might spend my whole life confined to bed. Now their life—our life—was full of hope.
A Barrage of Questions
When I turned four, I started at Seibo Kindergarten. As It was on the west side of the city, to save a lot of driving back and forth we upped and moved to Yohga In Setagaya Ward, about ten minutes by car from the kindergarten, Since my first memories date from around this time, when I'm asked where I'm from, I say Yohga.
Seibo wasn't specially set up for disabled children, but the basic policy was respect for the children's individuality. There was none of the usual "What shall we all do now?" We each did whatever we wanted, within the rules. This approach was perfect for me. If we'd all had to do the same activities, there were bound to have been things I couldn't do.
I made friends at once, thanks to my arms and legs, or lack thereof. First, the other kids' attention was caught by a strange machine—my power wheelchair. When they looked closer, the rider had no arms and legs! This was a great mystery. The moment they spotted me they'd gather like a swarm of ants, touching my limbs and asking "Why, why, why?" Whenever this happened, I used to explain, "I got sick when I was in my mom's tummy, and so my arms and legs didn't grow." That was all they needed to hear, and from then on we got along fine together.
It did get tiring, though, during the month or two that it took for the explanation to reach everyone, from my classmates to all the other children. Every day I was bombarded with questions. My mother says she remembers clearly the first time I came home whining, "I'm worn out." The teachers were concerned, too, as they saw what was happening; they asked whether I wasn't getting a headache or a stomachache when I came home. Leaving the grown-ups to worry about such things, I went on developing into a sturdy child—and then some.
Doing It MY Way
Thanks to having short arms and legs plus a wheelchair, I was a winner in the popularity department. I found myself always the center of a circle of friends. And, little by little, the typical willfulness of an only child began to kick in.
Among preschoolers, children just a few months apart in age can be at very different stages of growth. Because my birthday, April 6, fell just after the cutoff date for enrollment, I was the oldest in my class. You might say I had leadership potential—or you could just say I was a bossy kid.
Everyone would be playing tag in the playground. This was dead boring for me, since even with my power wheelchair I couldn't keep up. So I would wheel out and yell, "If you wanna play In the sandbox, follow me!" And, strangely enough, the kids who'd been happily chasing one another a moment ago would all troop after the wheelchair to the sandbox.
Once we got there, however, I couldn't build my own sand castles without hands, And so I gave the orders. Anyone who dared to say they wanted to dig a tunnel when I'd said to make a castle was asking for trouble.
"I said we're making a castle today. If you don't like It, you can go play by yourself." Since I could already talk up a storm in those days, it seems no one was able to stand up to me.
Being so headstrong didn't lose me any friends, though. I guess they thought, "If I stay on the right side of Oto-chan I won't be left out." This only encouraged me further. I became a real little tyrant, and gradually started getting smart with my parents and teachers as well.
While this lasted, I gave my parents a lot of headaches, they say, but there came a turning point when the problem solved itself. In my last year at kindergarten my willfulness vanished—though not, I have to admit, without a trace.
For Art Day, our class was putting on a play. The cast included "Gramps" the auto mechanic. Not a bad part, really, but nobody wanted it because the name "Gramps" sounded like a grumpy old man.
Finally my best friend, Shingo, shot up his hand and said, "I'll do it, then." I thought that was a truly classy thing to do. I can still remember how pathetic it made me feel by comparison. So, not to be outdone, I put myself up for the next most unpopular part, that of the narrator. Even at six, I was probably desperate to boost my standing as a young man. I was already image-conscious in those days, I guess.
The narrator's part was voice only—in other words, I was behind the scenes. My narration went over so well that some of the mothers said, "You should become an announcer when you grow up!" For a natural-born ham like me, always hogging the spotlight, it came as a revelation that a narrator could be so well received. I started to see how much cooperation it takes from all sides—including behind the scenes—to get something done. A preschooler whose world, till then, was centered entirely on himself had just grown up a little.
After that, I discovered it was really fun to play together with other kids. I began to get along better with all my classmates: by the time we were almost out of kindergarten, I was going over to play at a friend's place practically every day.
Thus, one of the biggest problems of my preschool years was solved thanks to my being so image-conscious. But a trickier problem was waiting up ahead.
|1||The King in the Wheelchair: My Preschool and Elementary School Years|
|A Little Tyrant||12|
|A Heavy Door||18|
|The Oto-Chan Rules||30|
|My Favorite Subject Is Phys Ed||36|
|The Taste of Rice Balls||42|
|The V Sign on My Back||48|
|Otohiro Printing Inc.||55|
|The Early Morning Runners||60|
|The Super Kickboard||70|
|Disabled People to the Rescue||77|
|2||Full Speed Ahead: My Middle School, High School, and Cram School Years|
|The Festival Guy||92|
|A Love Letter||107|
|Water of Life||125|
|Math: 7/200 ...||132|
|The Joys of Cram School||141|
|3||The Barrier-Free Heart: My Time at Waseda University|
|A Waste of Potential||166|
|The Waseda Community Campaign||172|
|The Eco-Summer Festival||177|
|Into the Twenty-First Century||186|
|American Travel Notes||193|
|On a Snowy Day||200|
|About My Father and My Mother||208|