I had an interesting experience a few days ago that has stayed with me. I was taking my students on a day trip out of Tokyo to a lovely old town called Kamakura. A young man, about 22 years old, got on the train. He stood by the door, fidgeting, swaying back and forth talking to himself. Every now and again, he would utter a gasp of delight when he saw something intriguing. Since we were in the first car of the train, he was able to go back and forth from the door to the window at the front to look out over the conductor’s shoulder to the tracks ahead. The joy on his face as he watched the conductor reminded me of my sons when they were little.
After a while he began start reciting stories to himself. The other people on the train politely ignored him. I noticed that while no one actually moved away from him, neither did they move any closer to him. Everyone seemd to silently agree that is was best to give him his own little bubble of space, an unusual luxury on crowded Japanese trains.
Several times, as he looked over in my direction to the trains traveling alongside of ours, I caught a glimpse of his face. I immediately recognized the look of pure innocence which is so familiar to me. It is a look that I know from years of experience being with people with autism and related developmental disabilities. Seeing this young man out in public on his own, riding the trains safely filled my heart with such happiness and hope for the future for my own son.
Before the arrival of my youngest son, I might have felt anxious having a stranger near me talking to himself and moving back and forth on the train. Today, however, because of all of the years of experience I have loving and caring for my son, I felt such a warm kind of kinship with this young man. His presence on the train made my day. I was so grateful to see him out in public, doing something very ordinary by himself, like taking a train.
In all the years I lived in Japan, I have rarely seen a person with congnitive or physical impairments out in public with a caregiver in Japan, let alone by themselves. Until very recently, handicapped people of all types were rarely seen in public. Slowly Japan is changing it’s attitudes and I am so happy to have been able to experience this for myself on this trip. Just sitting near this young man on the train helped take the edge off of a lot of complicated feelings that I have been carrying around for years after all of my own struggles in Japan trying to get help for my son when he was young.
Yesterday I had lunch at a fancy hotel restaurant with my teacher Kiyomi Saotome and our waiter was the son of a friend of mine from France and her Japanese husband. Her son has also struggled with his own developmental issues, similar to my son’s. I was so happy to see him in his splendid uniform and working in the restaurant. It was so encouraging to see him taking such pride in his work and making a life for himself.
I wonder what the future will bring for my son? If he will find employment which will give him joy and a sense of satisfaction when he gets older? The world is changing, in this case for the better and I couldn’t be happier. Who knows? Maybe he would even want to spend some time in Japan again someday?