From Karate Kid to Pediatric Volunteer

I realize that fantasizing about going to the Orient and returning with forbidden battle techniques hardly makes me the poster boy for the merits of a liberal arts education, but when I first heard that my study abroad program requires a semester-long community involvement project, it was hard not to indulge in visions of mastering Judo throws, or Kendo strikes, or proper Akido testicle obliteration techniques. Really, I was convinced that I wanted to learn something that would end with my being able to defeat some asshat outside Pond Annex in drunken combat. What can I say? I’m a victim of circumstance: my brothers and I grew up watching movies like 3 Ninjas and The Karate Kid, films which insist that American boys can only come of age through elderly Japanese men. Hell, Hilary Swank did it, so why couldn’t I?

I guess this is why it was so hard for me to decide what to do for my community project here in Kyoto. My favorite childhood movies showed me that, as a white guy in Japan, I was supposed to start some traditional Japanese art, initially face frustration because of my close-minded, cynical Western thinking, get challenged by a physically stronger but ultimately unenlightened competitor (whose sensei isn’t even Japanese!), and eventually triumph in a pinch when I realize that I needed to listen to my heart all along. I’d make sure to have that usual moment of self-realization that ties everything back to my good old fashioned American hometown – “but Tanaka-sensei, if what your saying is true, then the perfect Akido strike is no different than playing Air Hockey back home at Big Al’s Jumbo Arcade and Discotheque!”

Five minutes into the first meeting about community projects, however, it became painfully clear that joining the university’s Judo club was not going to be the same as spending questionably inappropriate amounts of personal time in Mr. Miyagi’s backyard. No, joining a legitimate martial arts group would not only require serious amounts of time and strict adherence to a traditional Japanese club’s rigid hierarchy system, but would also witness my entering as a complete beginner with only three months to make significant progress within a group of guys who’ve been doing it for years. It was high time I woke up from my Orientalist wet dream.

So instead of becoming the next Street Fighter, in keeping with my pre-med dreams, I half-heartedly signed up for volunteering at a local hospital, deciding to join a group called ニコニコトマト (lit. “Smiling Tomato” yeah, it makes no sense, but let’s just agree to give ‘em a break here.) that organizes entertainment for long-term patients in the pediatric ward.

This is the part where I’m supposed describe in great detail and multiple paragraphs how I nervously went about finding my volunteer station on the first day, using fun big boy words like “labyrinthine” to describe the sprawling university hospital. Then I’m supposed to somehow make terminal illness in children all about me and my feelings. Actually, I’m gonna go ahead and skip all that and say that, although meeting and playing with these incredibly resilient, unfailingly kind children has deeply moved me and motivated me to keep following my doctor dream, it’s the woman behind the program, who I’ll call Hiroko, who has really touched my life.

Hiroko’s son was hospitalized almost 20 years ago. At that time, seeing how the pediatric patients were stuck in their rooms, scared and alone for lengthy periods of time, Hiroko singlehandedly marched into to the hospital administrative office and asked to set up a program, free of charge, on her own. From that moment, she devoted herself tirelessly to generating exciting programing for the kids, relying not on money, but the personal network she had built over the years as the primary tool for bringing in other adults to help. Her son’s former teacher became her second-hand woman, a neighbor became a calligraphy instructor, a local student came to play traditional instruments – this is how Hiroko gets shit done. Everyone comes to her aid, not because they owe her something, but because they are drawn to her infinite warmth and determination. Long after her son recovered, Hiroko continued the program, expanding from working with neighbors out of her house to receiving a full-fledged permanent office in the pediatric ward.

A friend of Hiroko’s, who’s been volunteering for Smiling Tomato since its founding in 1995, told me, face beaming, how she used to see Hiroko running back and forth to the local convenience store to make photocopies for the program. “There goes Hiroko-san again,” she told me. And really, everyone in the pediatric ward has a similar story about her. Here’s this seemingly random woman who, in the midst of trauma, found strength, deciding not to flee but to instead revisit again and again the site of her trauma, seeking to ease the pain of others long after her own suffering had ended.

The best part is, in meeting Hiroko, you would never guess that she is this incredible volunteering hero. As we chatted over tea last week, Hiroko looked me straight in the face and basically said “yeah, I’m probably gonna die soon, and I could stop doing this program anytime I wanted, but hey, I like doing it, so why would I stop?” This tiny woman – 5’4” at best – sits there with her comically thick reading glasses and her utterly plain but expertly executed Japanese grandma fashion ensemble and for three hours straight throws all 85 pounds of herself into cutting tiny jack-o-lanterns for the Halloween party next week. Leave it to an elderly Japanese mom to put together the most efficient volunteer program on the planet.

Yeah, I didn’t get that Karate Kid experience I always secretly wanted. I didn’t get to master some ancient forbidden art, meet my estranged Japanese grandfather, or kill O-ren Ishii at The House of Blue Leaves. Really, nothing about my experience with Smiling Tomato has been distinctly “Japanese.” Hiroko didn’t teach me how life is like the sakura blossom, or how the chrysanthemum is the perfect metaphor for internalized homophobia. No, instead, I came half way around the globe to learn that no matter where you go, there are still decent, hard-working, kind people in the world. But honestly, that was worth the twelve-hour plane ride.