“Bye! See you tomorrow!”
Looking out of the window of his barbershop, Hiroyuki Tomono watched as his son got out of the kindergarten school bus while waving to a gray-haired man inside.
“Who was that?” the 41-year-old father asked. “That’s Ichiro,” his son, Haruki, replied.
Tomono had heard from his son about the man who visited the kindergarten every day as a volunteer clown, but was taken by surprise as he had always imagined someone much younger.
That was in the late summer of 2011, just a few months after Tomono’s 36-year-old pregnant wife, Michiyo, was killed in the massive tsunami of March 11, 2011, in their hometown of Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture. Haruki, 4 at the time of the catastrophe, was within a hair’s breadth of being swallowed up by the muddy water but luckily was saved by people nearby.
At home, Haruki always acted cheerful and upbeat, never shedding a tear at his mother’s death since sobbing only over her body. But Tomono noticed that at the kindergarten, Haruki avoided his friends and instead played all by himself or just stood in the corner of the playground.
There were also times during lunch break when he would look down at his lunch box and cry, the father was told.
Haruki was among the handful of children who caught 65-year-old Ichiro Oishi’s attention when he first visited Nobiru Kindergarten in Higashimatsushima as a volunteer clown in late August 2011. While others in the room were all excited over Oishi’s performance, these children either cried inconsolably or stood dazed the whole time.
Oishi, who had been traveling across the disaster-hit regions to perform at evacuation shelters and help cheer up tsunami survivors, was at that time thinking about ending his four-month journey to return to his home in Saitama Prefecture. But what he saw at Nobiru Kindergarten changed his mind.
Spending his nights at a volunteer center, which was set up at a former elementary school nearby, Oishi began to visit the kindergarten almost every day. Not only did he perform as a clown, entertaining the children with magic tricks and balloon art, Oishi also joined in the children’s daily activities and made a special effort to engage the handful of isolated kids.
“I could really feel that I have become a part (of the kindergarten),” Oishi said. “So I thought to myself, why not stay here for as long as I can.”
So there he stayed for a few more months, until he finally returned to Saitama in November that year — only to be greeted by an unexpected mess back home.
Oishi had temporarily closed his ramen shop in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, when he headed for the quake-devastated region that April, thinking he would be back in no more than two weeks.
Instead, returning seven months later, what he had left was a shop that needed massive repair if he were to restart his noodle business. Mice had feasted on flour and other ingredients stored at the shop and the 40-year-old building it was in had been damaged.
Oishi considered closing down his business.
Even if he fixed everything and reopened, the shop would be closed again when spring came as he had promised the children he would return to the disaster-hit areas again, he reasoned.
Oishi still had to wait for another year before he would reach the age to receive pension payments. Living on his savings, he continued his clown performances at local nurseries and hospitals in Saitama before heading to the quake-devastated Tohoku region again last May.
At kindergartens and day care centers wherever he visited, many children remembered him and would flock to him, calling him by his first name.
Asked why he became so attracted to the disaster areas to go as far as shutting down his business, Oishi’s answer was simple and straightforward: “Nothing beats those smiles on the children’s faces. That’s what’s keeping me going.”
Yugo Takahashi, the 45-year-old head of a citizens group that arranges accommodations for volunteers like Oishi, said he was not surprised when he heard that Oishi had closed down his ramen shop.
“He looked so happy whenever he was with the kids,” Takahashi said. “He’s a very blessed person. I hope I can become an old man like him.”
Oishi first learned about volunteer clowns in 2008 from a TV program about hospital clowns. After watching the show for less than five minutes, he was convinced: “I must do this too.”
So he took time out of his busy schedule as a ramen shop owner to attend classes in Tokyo to become a clown. “I was immediately drawn to it. You see, I would have regretted just watching other people win all those smiles from the children.”
In fact, Oishi’s endeavor in Tohoku has helped to heal the wounds in the hearts of not only children, but also of the adults there.
Tomono, the father of Haruki, recalled how he had been exhausted in the months after losing his wife in the disaster, having to handle housework and raise his son all by himself. Unable to sleep at night, there were times when he needed to depend on medication, he said.
Tomono eventually got to know Oishi in person through activities at the kindergarten and local events. He sometimes brought Haruki, now 6, to visit Oishi and other volunteers where they stayed.
Oishi always treated them warmly and even invited them to stay for meals. Tomono soon found himself surrounded by a circle of new friends.
“I myself was in need of company,” Tomono said, recalling how he felt at the time. “Having suddenly lost my wife, I had been stuck and kept my feelings bottled up inside me.”
Although the gatherings often involved just trivial and idle chats, for Tomono, those were precious times.
“It helped me, even more than for my son, to open my heart and relax.”