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Building a world without barriers, borders

Disabled trailblazer Hiroko Kimura has waged a lifelong battle to build bridges, break down boundaries

by Jon Mitchell

One afternoon in the mid-1980s, Hiroko Kimura was taking a rest from sightseeing on a park bench in Adelaide, southern Australia. As she was enjoying the warm sunshine, she spotted the words “Japs go home” carved into the wood. This was the height of the bubble years and Kimura was aware that some people resented Japanese companies buying up Australian land, but she hadn’t known the hatred ran this deep.

“From that moment on,” she says, “I made up my mind to do something to bring together Australian and Japanese people.”

For anybody else, such a decision probably would have been forgotten as soon as they returned to their daily lives. But when Kimura sets her heart on achieving something, it’s very hard to dissuade her. Take, for example, the time she resolved to teach herself to read and write. Then, the moment she decided to become a professional artist. Not forgetting when, at the age of 18, she taught herself how to walk . . .

Born in 1937, Kimura was diagnosed at an early age with cerebral palsy, which racked her body with spasms and left her with firm control over only her left foot. When she was a young girl, her father was killed in World War II and her mother raised her in poverty in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

For a while, her mother’s love insulated her from many of the prejudices against disabled people, but when Kimura was 13, her mother died and she was taken in by relatives. For the next three years, she was treated in a manner all too familiar to disabled people in the 1950s: Regarding her as a guilty secret to be hidden out of sight, her relations shut her in a cupboard-size room where summer saw her defenseless against clouds of mosquitoes, and winter left her shivering beneath thin blankets.

Abandoned like this for over two years, her thoughts grew increasingly dark until Kimura came up with a plan. One day, she waited for her relatives to leave for work, then dragged herself across the yard to a shed. There, she knocked over a bottle of pesticide, unscrewed its cap with her teeth and drank.

“I was sure my mother would be waiting with a gentle smile somewhere in the next world,” explains Kimura in her autobiography, “Life on the Left Toes.”

The poison didn’t kill her, however, and when she woke up in hospital, she was surprised to find that her near-death experience had fostered in her a new will to live.

The first thing that Kimura pledged to do was learn to read and write. Her mother had taught her the fundamentals, but Kimura was hungry for more. Turning the pages with her left foot, she worked her way through the entire dictionary before moving on to other, equally challenging books. At the same time, she trained herself to hold a pencil between her toes.

“After about two months, I was able to write an awful scrawl of five lines on letter paper.”

Walking was much more difficult. Due to her palsied limbs, doctors maintained that she would never be able to stand, let alone move by herself. Kimura was determined to prove them wrong. It took her 11 full days to rise out of her wheelchair, then three months of hard practice to totter a meter. Her constant falls left her covered in cuts, scars and orange splashes of antiseptic cream, but one year later, she was able to walk unassisted — an achievement that broadened her world infinitely and allowed her to pursue the focus of the next stage of her life: poetry.

At first, the teachers and classmates at the tanka workshop she attended were skeptical of her abilities. After reading her first few verses, they changed their minds — while Kimura’s poems adhered to the strict conventions of the tanka form, they also combined a heartrending commentary of the injustices meted out by able-bodied society with a poignant sensuality unheard of in disabled people’s writing at the time. One poem reads: If only they used for the handicapped

The money spent on just one rocket . . .
My friend said smiling a wry smile
And rubbing her benumbed leg

In another, Kimura writes:

The smell of the soap
Makes me feel a pain
Tonight on my breasts
That have never known caress

Despite winning acclaim for her writing, Kimura knew she would not be able to support herself financially through poetry. Reluctantly recognizing the limits to her independence, she admitted herself into an institution for disabled people. It was here that she experienced the very worst of what government care entailed, as she and her fellow residents were forced into a regime of soul-sapping tedium and petty, rigid rules.

The longer Kimura stayed, the more she felt her earlier gains slip away. Three-and-a-half years after entering the institution, she realized she would have to do something before she became like the listless patients she saw around her. Announcing to the staff that she was just heading across the road to a nearby meeting hall, Kimura left the institution.

Her true destination was rather further than she’d admitted — half the country away in Chiba.

After an arduous three-day trip by local train, Kimura arrived at the home of Kinji Takagaki, a man with cerebral palsy who was at the forefront of a campaign to encourage disabled people to live as independently as possible.

Over the next months, Takagaki and his wife taught Kimura to cook, clean and — most importantly — go to the toilet for herself. Her sense of liberation at having achieved this, an act that able-bodied people take for granted, is obvious in the following poem:

When I eased nature all alone
For the first time in my life
The word ‘impossible’ went out of my vocabulary

The Takagakis rekindled Kimura’s passion for life, and she was determined to keep expanding her horizons.

In 1964, she spotted an ad for a haiga class and decided to attend. Haiga, a form of art that combines poetry and painting, was not entirely new to Kimura, who was already an accomplished writer. However, painting was a skill she’d never attempted before.

For half a year, she practiced without any improvement, but then she met a struggling, elderly artist.

“Here was another man fighting against his destiny. Even at his age, he would not throw away his brush.”

Inspired by his dedication, Kimura painted constantly during the following months, gradually becoming more proficient. She drew children, flowers and landscapes in a style she describes as “very direct, raw and passionate.”

Although she often claims to have “little artistic ability,” other people disagreed, and her paintings gained the attention of the International Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. In 1967, she was accepted as a member by the Europe-based organization — a development that meant that her paintings would be reproduced worldwide on calendars and cards, conferring on her a share of the profits. At the age of 29, Kimura had achieved a degree of financial stability she had only dreamed of.

Even then, Kimura did not sit back on her laurels. Her memories of being locked away by both relatives and institutions were still fresh in her mind — as were the lessons she’d been taught by the Takagakis. With the aim that “handicapped people should live independently with the cooperation of non-handicapped people,” Kimura established Tsuchi no Kai — The Association of the Earth. Unlike other groups of the time that sometimes shunned able-bodied members, Tsuchi no Kai was true to its name: Just as the earth indiscriminately absorbs the rain and sun, the group accepted everyone regardless of race, gender or ability.

In a converted storehouse in Yamaguchi Prefecture, a diverse range of people gathered with a common belief that through comprehension and cooperation, they could help one another to live. Accompanying the bedrooms and dining room, Kimura devised a special training space for disabled people to practice the myriad of daily chores necessary for independent living.

While Tsuchi no Kai succeeded in helping scores of disabled people become more self-reliant, the rest of the world was slower to change. The point was forcefully driven home to Kimura when she found herself turned away from a Kyoto hotel because the owner claimed they weren’t equipped to deal with disabled people. Vowing that others would not suffer the same embarrassment, in 1983 Kimura established Tsuchi no Yado (The Inn of the Earth) on Iejima, a small island off the coast of Okinawa’s main island.

The inn was designed by an architecture student in lieu of his graduation thesis, and it captures perfectly Kimura’s all-embracing vision. Its walls are open to the elements, there are two large communal rooms, and it is fully wheelchair accessible, with ramps, low-set light switches and a two-tier stove and sink so people of all abilities can cook together.

The student who designed the building apparently passed his course with top grades.

“He also ended up marrying one of our staff,” Kimura explained with a laugh when I met her in August. “To date, I’ve seen over 50 couples tie the knot after meeting here at Tsuchi no Yado.”

These statistics reflect Kimura’s magnetism, says Julie Rogers, the cowriter of “Peace on Wheels,” a documentary on Kimura’s art and life.

“She is very good at creating a platform which allows people from different realms to come together through the daily tasks of eating, cooking — and, of course, just talking. Hiroko is very fond of the phrase ‘tomo ni ikiru’ — it’s through living together that we learn about life.”

This shared sense of community was what Kimura wanted to replicate when she saw the hateful graffiti on the park bench in Australia.

“Reading those words, I wondered what I could do. I didn’t only want to help by painting — I wanted to create a space where Japanese and Australian people could communicate openly.”

In one of the fortuitous encounters Kimura seems to naturally generate, she met an Australian man in Adelaide who shared her ambition.

“Max Jellie had been stationed in Japan as part of the Allied occupying force,” explained Kimura. “He hated war and so he wanted to help build a peaceful place, too. Without his help we couldn’t have built Tsuchi no Yado in Australia.”

Through the efforts of Jellie and his wife, Phylis, Rogers and countless other volunteers and helpers, Kimura navigated the plethora of planning permissions, fire inspections and red tape necessary for opening a bed and breakfast in Australia. It would take over two decades, and they encountered several near-calamitous setbacks along the way, but finally in 2004 an Australian branch of Tsuchi no Yado opened in the Adelaide Hills.

“The Australian Tsuchi No Yado isn’t a place where guests hide away in their rooms,” explains Maria Catanzariti, the current manager. “There’s always something going on, whether it’s games, cooking workshops or music lessons. If we have Japanese guests, the Australian staff teaches them about our country and we learn a lot from them, too.” Catanzariti, who has muscular dystrophy, says that approximately 25 percent of their guests are disabled, and their interactions with able-bodied visitors help everyone to better understand one another.

Although she is based in Okinawa, Kimura makes the 18-hour journey to Adelaide as often as her health allows. When I met her, she’d just returned from a monthlong trip.

This time, she’d taken along a party of Iejima schoolchildren in order to promote an interest in foreign cultures. It seemed to work — throughout my stay at the Okinawa inn, they bombarded me with questions about my own country, and a 15-year-old boy told me he’d learned so much about environmental issues in Adelaide that he was thinking of studying them in the future.

Kimura ensures that such cultural exchanges are not a one-way street. Rogers recalls the story of one Australian youth who’d gone off the rails. Kimura brought him to Iejima for a month, where life among the island’s coral reefs, goats and sugar cane fields seemed to straighten him out.

Stories such as these suggest that Kimura’s vision is finally bearing fruit. Currently, there are plans to expand the Australian inn, and the Okinawa property is often fully booked with foreign backpackers, university students and people interested in Kimura’s continuing struggle to win a fair deal for those with disabilities.

In these economically troubled times, success stories are rare, and I wonder whether the inns’ achievements are not despite these problems, but because of them. The recent months of redundancies, repossessions and restructuring have revealed to many of us the limits of our own lifestyles. So it should come as no surprise that many people are searching for a more compassionate model of community where, no matter what our abilities, together we can share our strengths and overcome our individual weaknesses — in Kimura’s words, tomo ni ikiru.

More of Hiroko Kimura’s art can be accessed via the International Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists website at www.vdmfk.com. Information on “Peace on Wheels,” a film on Kimura’s life and art, can be found at peaceonwheels.net. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp