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In crowded Japanese cities like Tokyo, vast numbers of people use the underground trains, the buses, the roads and throng the shops. For someone like me, brought up in a very quiet English suburb where the population’s average age was 72, it was a huge culture shock.
Even London has nothing on the sheer speed and density of the crowds in Tokyo. Tokyo station is HUGE – a mini underground city, in fact. Trying to walk from one side to the other is exhausting – like crossing a twelve lane motorway with your eyes closed. It’s even scarier when you are carrying a baby, and all the paraphernalia associated with babies – a folded up pushchair, a nappy bag, various bottles and jars of food and three contingency sets of clothes…
Our son was seven months old when he visited Japan for the first time. We were quite anxious about all the practical aspects of the trip – a 12 hour plane journey is no fun for anyone, but probably the least fun thing I can think of if you have a heavy, squirmy baby on your lap, and everybody is looking daggers at you for daring to bring a child on board. Also, you tend to favour a certain brand of nappies, of food, or creams and lotions…but with a 20kg luggage limit each, bringing all that stuff from home wasn’t really possible. Of course, Japan stocked similar products – after all, there are babies in Japan too (although not nearly as many) – and the differences were interesting and strange.
For example, the Japanese brand nappies did up at the back. Our son had to patiently sport a few odd-looking nappies before we worked that one out! They had little jars of baby food that resembled the ones you could buy in Sainsbury’s – jars I tried to avoid back home (I was the Ice Cube Puree Queen) – but instead of being called butternut squash flavour, or spaghetti and tomato flavour, they had sardines, sweet potato, seaweed and rice flavours. Our son LOVED them.
In fact, he loved everything about Japan. In Japan, he came to life. His eyes were round with wonder. He gazed into people’s faces; he laughed out loud; he tried to grab the (pornographic) comics from the hands of commuters. He smiled all day long, and ate with gusto. He turned over for the first time in Japan. He started to hold his head up high. He babbled constantly, communicating with bright, enthusiastic animation.
I found this utterly amazing. It seemed to prove that he had some kind of genetic memory of Japan – as if something dormant in his blood, woke up joyously and recognised the place, even though he’d never been there before.
Usually, Japanese strangers don’t talk to each other in public places (in that sense, they’re more British than British people), but quite a few strangers - usually elderly ladies, who were old enough that they didn’t give a crap about social convention any more – spoke to us, simply to tell us how cute our baby was. ‘Half’ babies are considered the holy grail of cuteness in Japan, apparently.
I had another encounter on a Japanese train during that holiday – one I will never forget, because it haunts me. Even now, 12 years on, thinking about it makes me tearful.
We were on a fairly long journey, and Hubby and I hadn’t been able to sit near each other due to the crush of people. Someone stood up for me, so that I could sit down with my son on my lap, and we were reasonably comfortable for 10 minutes or so. However, he started to get restless and, very unusually for him, started to cry and fuss. I knew he was probably hungry, but I wasn’t really sure whether I could breastfeed him on an incredibly crowded train.
Just as his wriggling and grizzling was starting to escalate, a large young man who had been standing like a slumped potato a few metres away, sidled up to me and handed my son a soft toy panda to fiddle with.
He gestured at my son and said, “He’s cute.”
The panda had super long arms and legs, with Velcro at the ends, and was designed to fix around your arm or back pack like a sloth hanging off a branch. My son was concentrating on doing and undoing the Velcro, and his crying had miraculously stopped. I thanked the man cautiously.
I was puzzled though. I knew convention. I knew it was very unusual for a stranger to make contact in this way. I looked searchingly at him, and I sensed instantly that something wasn’t quite right. He had a red cap on over scruffy hair, and his moon face looked stubbly and somehow unhealthy – as if he rarely went outside. He was, unusually for a Japanese youngster, quite overweight, and there was something odd and awkward about his posture.
Now, I have improved a LOT, but in those days, I was terrified of Japanese strangers, because I had no confidence in my ability to communicate. But this guy started speaking to me, using simple, stunted sentences rather like my own.
“I had an accident,” he confided, gazing steadily at me. I glanced around the carriage and saw everybody was concentrating on their books, or handbags, or pretending to sleep.
“My friend was driving. He was alright. But my head got squashed.”
I murmured an appropriate commiseration, feeling hot and uncomfortable – the double whammy of my Britishness and Japaneseness making me break out in a sweat.
“My head swelled up. The doctors had to put in a shunt.” He took his red cap off and leaned in towards me to show me a shocking hole in his skull, just behind his left ear. The edges were healed over with skin, but I could have put a pencil up this hole – it was that big.
“How terrible for you,” I said sincerely. “I hope you’re feeling a bit better now.”
His face was impassive. “I’m not quite right any more. I hurt my brain. I can’t do much. I can’t get a proper job.” He slowly replaced the cap on his head, covering up his catastrophic injury.
I didn’t know what to say, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel embarrassed or awkward any more. We smiled at each other in comfortable silence for a moment.
Then he said, “My family think I should have died. They are ashamed of me now.”
My jaw dropped in horror, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring out of the window placidly, as if he’d been commenting on the weather.
The train drew to a stop, and the young man hauled his ruck sack onto his back.
“Well… My stop. Goodbye,” he said, turning to walk away.
“Wait!” I cried. “Your panda!”
He smiled at me and he smiled at my son and said, “Please keep it.”
And with that, he stepped off the train and disappeared into the seething mass of people on the platform.
I felt oddly disconnected from reality for a few hours after that encounter – as if I’d had an out-of-body experience, or maybe interacted with a supernatural being. I was left feeling incredibly privileged somehow, to have had contact with that brave, stoic man – honoured that he shared his story with me, sad as it was.
On a train crammed full of people, the only person who showed me any kindness or empathy as I struggled with a crying, fitful baby was that young man. And yet his own family wished he had died in the accident rather than continue life with brain damage, BECAUSE IT BROUGHT THEM SHAME?
That memory STILL breaks my heart today.
We have that gangly, long-legged panda still. I have told this story to my children many times, and we can’t bear to part with the panda. It was a gift from someone special.