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Serial blood donor Wataru Takekuma

by Judit Kawaguchi

Wataru Takekuma, 36, is a government worker in Toyama Prefecture’s Kurobe City. With a population of 43,000, Kurobe is one of the four areas in Japan that made it to the 2008 UNESCO list of the 12 most abundant subsurface water resources in Asia. Takekuma was born and raised in this town where people still gather around outdoor wells overflowing with fresh water to cool melons, wash vegetables and crack jokes. He adores his wife and two kids and considers himself a typical country boy, having grown up learning judo and living by its moral code of helping others without expecting anything in return. So far he has given blood 146 times, and last year he even donated bone marrow, acts of kindness he says are nothing to write home about.

If you grow up surrounded by treasures, you assume that everyone lives that way. In my home town of Kurobe, if you drill down 30 meters anywhere, a spring will appear that provides an unlimited supply of fresh water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at exactly 11 C. We have our own spring inside our house from which water pours nonstop out onto the street, where there are open pools at which neighbors gather to chat. We have so much water so close to home that you hear, smell and see water everywhere.

The strong perform well even if they don’t get cheered on, but the weak need all the encouragement they can get. Even if they still can’t make it to their goal, that’s not the point. Japanese love cheering the underdog. A great example is Haru Urara, a racehorse the whole nation adored and bet on, even though she never won. She ran as fast as she could but lost all of her 113 races. It is a telling statement about our national psyche that we loved her anyhow and didn’t mind losing our money on her.

In the countryside, we don’t need money, just goods to exchange. We barter everything, from rice, veggies, fruit and fish to even services such as working on someone’s house or barn, or shoveling snow. I use money for my car and utilities, books and maybe some clothes, that’s about it.

Watch your step, ’cause if you take one small detour on the way home, the next thing you know, you may be on a stretcher dripping blood. I didn’t think much about it until one day I noticed a blood-donation center at my university. I walked in and got hooked on donating. When I discovered a donation center in my local station, it wasn’t the idea of helping that brought me back month after month, but the chance to watch the center manager at work. He was amazing! He’d talk up a storm and make friends with all the donors. I kept giving blood just to learn from him how to give superior service and create regulars out of anyone. As time went by, giving blood became a habit. I guess you should choose your activities carefully, as once they become habits you might be stuck with them for life.

Don’t believe the hype: Bone marrow donation is easy — the difficulty is getting the chance to donate. There are 333,000 registered bone-marrow donors, but each year only about 1,000 have the opportunity to donate. I am one of the lucky few. For six months I had health checks and counseling, and once I actually went under the knife, it was all smooth sailing. The doctors played me soothing music, knocked me out with anesthetic and seven hours after surgery I was already walking up and down the stairs between the 1st and 8th floors of the hospital. It was a piece of cake and it saved a life — I’d do it again today, if they let me.

There is no privacy in the countryside, but at least we eat well and have many friends. Neighborhood grandmas stop by with carrots any time they feel like it, and we must open the door, because they know we are inside. In a big city, one can disappear on the street and at home, but country folks have no place to hide. Still, I love living in Kurobe. It is like having a huge family: Some relatives are great, others a bit funky, but since we are a family, we love each other.

Men should be allowed to cry again. Japanese are emotional and are often moved to tears. Nowadays, boys are told to endure pain without crying, even though a man with a handkerchief used to be sexy in Japan: It showed that he was sensitive. The hero of “The Tale of Genji,” Hikaru Genji, was often in tears. We need to bring back that culture, as there are so many reasons to feel like weeping, and getting rid of that salty water makes us sweeter.

All people have their own set of rules to live by, and we’ll probably never understand the rules of others. All we can do is accept their way of doing things, and maybe then they will accept ours. We have two kids, and our 4-year-old son, who is autistic, does a lot of things that defy logic. He lines things up in neat rows constantly and loves acting like a living tape recorder: Any conversation he hears registers in his head, and if he returns to the same place where he heard the original dialogue, he repeats it. It gives him immense pleasure to play these games, and there is no way to make him do anything he doesn’t want to. It took me a while to realize that all people, regardless of their health or age, do whatever it is that makes them happy.