On the Road Meeting MM: On Friendship and Disability in Japan
“Being disabled my entire life, I have yet to experience the kind of loss that MM must feel. To me, disability is the norm.”
I am in Tokyo at the annual reception of the Japan-US Friendship Commission at the International House. The ground-floor room looks out to a Japanese garden. As I eye the food at the nearby buffet, the staff introduces me to the guests. Each hands me his or her meishi , and I give each mine. I remember not to put someone’s meishi away while we are talking, refraining from slipping them in my pocket until the conversation is over and the person I was talking to has moved on. By the end of the evening, I have a thick stack of meishi in my shirt pocket.
I am on my way to the bathroom when I notice a widely smiling, short, rotund, bald Japanese man, in his late fifties or early sixties, wearing a tie with cartoon penguins on it.
“That’s a great tie,” I say to the man as I pass by.
“It is always a great icebreaker,” the man says, focusing his wide smile on me. “I wear it to international conferences where many languages are spoken and it always does the trick.” He laughs heartily.
“Muramatsu Masumi,” he says, extending his hand. He gives me his meishi , which also has a similar penguin. “But you can call me MM.”
I present my meishi to MM and read his meishi , which tells me he is the founder and president of the English-Speaking Union of Japan.
MM reads my name from my meishi , pronouncing it correctly since the Japanese katakana characters are phonetic. “So, you are one of the artists being supported by the foundation. What is your business in Japan?”
“I am a writer researching disability in Japan.”
“Disability. Is this the politically correct word? Is this the word that is now used?”
“It’s the word I prefer. None are perfect.”
“Yes, words can be like that.”
“Others use words like physically challenged or the unfortunate differently abled —” I stop, realizing that what I had just said might be misunderstood. “I mean I find the choice of the phrase unfortunate, not the so-called differently abled.”
MM roars his warm laughter. “Many years ago, we used to call our live-in housekeeper, jochu . However, as time has passed the word developed pejorative—pejorative, is that the right word?—connotations, and we no longer use it. Interesting how the meaning of words can change over time. Is this the kind of work you do?”
“Kind of. It is something I think about.”
“I would like to talk more with you about this and other subjects.”
“I have your meishi and will call you.”
“Please do. And when we meet, I will wear another interesting tie.”
I bow my head slightly and make my way to the bathroom.
Naoko, on the staff, intercepts me. “Do you know who was talking with you?” she asks.
“He says to call him MM.”
“Muramatsu-sensei is a famous man. He was the first simultaneous interpreter in Japan, interpreting for all important dignitaries. Presidents. Prime ministers. He also was the voice heard on Japanese television speaking Neil Armstrong’s famous lines when he landed on the moon.”
MM. Photo provided by the author.
MM and I begin meeting regularly for noodles. No matter where we go together, we somehow end up eating noodles. In Kanda, shopping for old books, he takes me to a famous old noodle restaurant. After seeing Kabuki, I take him to a noodle shop under the elevated train tracks near Ginza.
“How do you know these places?” one of us invariably asks the other when we are delighted to be eating noodles together again.
I have never had a friend like MM before. His love of different languages, different cultures, and different senses of humor—he is a connoisseur of international humor—is catching. He has traveled all over and met most of the world’s leaders during the past four decades, and when he retired he was still the finest simultaneous interpreter in Japan. This seventy-one-year-old man, a year older than my father, has more energy than I do. He thrives on the internet, constantly using his laptop to research and send emails as he travels.
During our time together, MM tells me his story. Alone as a teenager living near Asakusa after the war—his family had escaped the Tokyo air raids for the countryside—he began collecting metal and bringing it to someone who manufactured toys. Soon, he was selling the toys. Then, he found a job as a clerk, typing for the occupying US Army, which is how he first learned English. He studied at Waseda University in the evenings. In 1956, he moved with his wife to the United States to work for the Japan Trade Council, eventually becoming its director.
“Washington, DC, was a smaller city when I lived there,” he tells me. “I was well known around town as the character who drove his Pontiac dressed in a yukata .”
Returning to Japan in 1965, MM helped establish Simul International, which became the best-known school for interpreters in Japan.
MM asks me to speak to his English-Speaking Union. After my talk, he introduces me to many of his former students, invariably women younger than he, with whom he has kept in touch years after he was their teacher.
Eating noodles after the talk, I ask MM: “What do you know about Ebisu?” I’ve heard from a disability studies scholar that Ebisu, one of the S hichifukujin , the Seven Lucky Gods, is disabled.
“The Shichifukujin . Are they Shinto or Buddhist?”
“I think legend says they come from China. Have you heard of Lafcadio Hearn?”
“I’ve been reading about him ever since I knew I was coming to Japan. “
“Last year I was in Matsue, where Hearn once lived. There’s a memorial hall, a museum, in his old house. I was outside the house when I started a conversation with a nice man. Turns out he was Hearn’s great-grandson. He now runs the museum.” MM lets out his boisterous laugh. “It’s a beautiful place with a small area still reminiscent of old Japan. I will take you there. In Kwaidan , Hearn tells the tale of Hōïchi, the earless, blind biwa singer. It’s a ghost story. I love ghost stories. We should go see the ghost stories this month at Kabuki-za.”
“ Bakemono .” I say the Japanese word for ghost or monster.
“Yes, ba-ke-mo-no,” MM inimitably repeats, distinctly pronouncing each syllable, as if he wants to make sure I pronounce Japanese correctly. “ Bakemono literally means a thing that changes.”
When my parents come to visit for my father’s seventieth birthday, I am in the hospital with a high fever due to strep throat. I will not be able to welcome them to Japan.
MM visits. He brings me flowers. “Bought from my daughter, the florist. I never bought flowers from her before.” MM smiles his wide smile.
Eiko-san, my landlady, visits when MM is still in my room. She bows deeply to him and looks at me. “How do you know such a famous man to my generation? You have such a wonderful time in Japan,” she says, before bowing to MM once again. “Everyone is good to you.”
“I will meet your parents at their hotel on Friday night,” MM tells me. “I will bring them to see you here.”
By Friday, my fever has abated but the infection remains. That night my parents arrive in Tokyo. MM meets them at their hotel and escorts them to the hospital.
My father’s main concern during most of my childhood and young-adult life was my well-being. He sees my friends surrounding me in my hospital bed. He relaxes and holds my hand.
Two days later, it is my father’s birthday. Although I am still on IV, my fever is almost normal and the infection is finally starting to get better. I had arranged a special dinner at a small restaurant in Ginza. I do not want to miss the dinner.
“My father’s seventieth birthday is today,” I inform the doctor. “We have a special dinner in Ginza.”
“You can go,” the doctor proclaims. “We will detach your IV. I order you to go.”
MM meets us in Ginza. At the small restaurant designed to look like a traditional rustic Japanese country home, we are served the preordered eight-course “Yuki” dinner, starting with a rustic soup and ending with soba. I sit with my back braced against a wall and enjoy watching my mother eat what is to her “strange food.”
A waitress carries a cake with lit candles to our table. Somehow, MM had told the restaurant to have a cake for my father’s seventieth birthday. My father is surprised, and as he blows out his birthday candles he begins to cry.
When my grant is over, MM visits New York City. We have lunch with my parents, who come from upstate to see him. He tells my raised-in-Brooklyn Jewish mother she looks like Marilyn Monroe.
MM wants to see the exhibit on Jewish influence in entertainment at the Jewish Museum. His ebullient interest in a culture different from his own reminds me of what I miss about Japan.
Soon after his visit, I receive word from Japan that MM has had a stroke. He is in the hospital recovering; he still cannot speak. I want so much to write to him, but I’m told he no longer uses email. I contact the woman from MM’s English-Speaking Union every few days to find out if there is any news about him. Finally, she tells me that MM is doing somewhat better. He is back at home but spends three days a week at a rehabilitation center. This makes things easier for his wife. He can understand what is said to him, in both Japanese and English, but he can barely speak a coherent word.
Being disabled my entire life, I have yet to experience the kind of loss that MM must feel. To me, disability is the norm. My disability experience has never been tinged with a sense of loss. I can only imagine MM’s frustration. His entire life has been built on communication.
When I return to Japan on a Fulbright, I visit Matsue. “It’s a beautiful place with a small area still reminiscent of old Japan,” MM had told me when he gave me a copy of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan .
In the small, well-preserved samurai district surrounding the Hearn residence, I eat warigo soba , the local noodle specialty. I think of MM—how we enjoyed eating noodles together, how when he first told me about Matsue, he had said, “Maybe I will go with you. I would like to return to Matsue.” Though I know I will see MM in Tokyo, I mourn the occasion that never came to be.
When I return to Tokyo, I go to Asakusa and think of the young MM. He lived in this part of town, most of which had been destroyed during the war. Somehow, he survived.
I visit MM at the Yokohama daycare center where he spends three days a week. MM is waiting just beyond the door for my prearranged arrival. I miss my outings with MM very much—noodles, as well as Japan itself, are not the same without him. When I first enter the daycare center, I see his beaming smile. His body almost jumps out of his wheelchair. He is very happy to see me.
When he speaks, he struggles after more than a few words; his frustration is palpable. But he still understands both Japanese and English. I tell him about my research. I have begun to find more representations of disability in Japanese culture, a process that began with MM mentioning Hōïchi and giving me a copy of Hearn’s Kwaidan . I tell him what I saw on my trip to Matsue and how much I would have enjoyed eating warigo soba with him.
When, after his few words, speech doesn’t arrive, he actively nods his head to show his agreement. He holds my hand.
Before leaving, he gives me a booklet. It is the compilation that his friends put together in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday, for which I contributed my story of first meeting MM at the I-House.
On the train, I read what another friend of MM has written about MM’s interest in cross-cultural humor: MM’s friend accompanied him to a “Doing Business in Japan” conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In his talk at the conference, MM explained how Japan combines tradition with practicality by demonstrating the Japanese tea ceremony.
Explaining the Japanese respect for handicraft, MM showed what was supposedly an antique teacup. He poured in the tea and, following tea ceremony custom, carefully revolved the cup in his hand three times. Then, he proceeded to eat the cup. Though appearing to be a proper ceramic teacup, it was made of edible flour paste. To his friend’s delight, MM slyly counteracted the stereotype of the humorless Japanese. He showed there is often more than what is seen.
Now, MM, Japan’s most famous simultaneous interpreter, who started the first Japanese school of simultaneous interpretation, the man who enabled governments to communicate more efficiently and clearly with each other, my friend who helped guide me during my initial explorations of a very foreign culture, can no longer speak.
I feel an unfamiliar sadness—unfamiliar because I rarely, if ever, feel sadness about disability, my own or someone else’s. Having been born disabled, I usually associate disability with adaptation, not with loss. To me, thus far, disability has not been about loss. It has been about the body’s mutability, about time.
Is my sadness about MM’s loss? Or is what I feel more about my loss, not having him at my side as I continue to experience Japan?
MM’s stroke has left him unable to live the life he was accustomed to living. But still I question: Is it MM’s impairment that leads to loss, or is it our inability to imagine a different life for him?
A few weeks later, I want to tell MM what I’ve been discovering. I contact the woman who arranges visits for MM. She surprises me by saying that MM’s friends can no longer visit him. MM has had another stroke. His wife refuses all visitors.
I think of how the Japanese often keep disability and serious illness, still a sign of shame, from public view. Hidden away by his wife, MM will no longer be able to communicate his unique understanding of humor, of his culture, of the joy he felt for the world.
That night, I read about Yamamoto Kansuke.
During the great Japanese civil wars, the Shingen Takeda family employed Yamamoto, a military general once widely known in Japan. He was ugly, blind in one eye, and had a crippled leg and no fingers. His body was full of scars. Yamamoto’s shrewd military tactics and ability to analyze information was legendary; he could visualize detailed geography, the shape of a castle, the situation of the castle town, and movements of people as if all of this was happening right in front of him. He was able to create a three-dimensional world based on what he gleaned from books and stories.
However, the official books by the Takeda family do not mention Yamamoto Kansuke. Nor does any book by the family’s vassals. He is no longer depicted as the brilliant military general he actually was. I wonder what MM would make of this: In Japanese history, as society moved from an imperial society to a warrior society, those deemed physically different disappear.