In Japan, leave-takings are marked with fanfare. Parties, gifts, speeches, photos, train-platform farewells, never-ending waves goodbye and bows — the Japanese really know how to say sayonara. As a long-term resident of Japan, I have been on the receiving end of these rituals many times. But the most memorable send-off I have ever witnessed was the one given my adopted son when he left the orphanage to come and join our family.
Two-year-old Sho-chan had been living in a children’s home in Osaka, along with approximately 25 other infants and toddlers, from the age of 3 months. Now my husband and I had arrived to take him home with us to Nagoya.
First, we would be spending several days at the children’s home in order to learn Sho’s daily routine and to give him a chance to get to know us on familiar turf. The day of Sho’s departure would be decided by the director, based upon her observations of our interaction. We had been told to plan on staying for about a week.
On the first day, she gave us a few baby photos of Sho: blowing out birthday candles, posing with Santa, modeling new Anpanman pajamas, climbing on the monkey bars, splashing in the bathtub of a caregiver who took him to her home for the Bon holiday. These scenes were lovingly recorded, as they were for all the children, in photos taken by his busy caregivers.
Sho called his principal caregiver “Cha-chan.” Cha-chan put her charges through the paces of the day with a kind but firm hand. There was absolutely no whining or dawdling by the children during meals.
The caregivers were masters at getting 100 tiny arms and legs in and out of clothing quickly. At bath time, Sho stood stoically as buckets of water were poured over his head. He obediently went down on all fours, in order to have his bottom washed, at Cha-chan’s command: “Mo-san shite! (Be Mr. Cow!)”
As my husband and I cuddled some of the other children at bedtime, Cha-chan told us that while the basic needs of all the children were met, there were simply not enough available laps and hands to give them a fully satisfying amount of affection. Most had no, or only rare, visitors.
Twice a year, she said, the director sent each legal guardian — a parent or relative — a photo documenting their child’s growth. These were mailed out prior to New Year’s and Bon, with a plea that the child be taken home overnight for those holidays, but few guardians came to get them.
Only Sho and one other child there were slated for adoption. Their guardians, unlike the great majority of others, had agreed to relinquish custody of the children so that they could be adopted. The others would be moved to an institution for older children when they turned 2.
All of Sho’s “siblings” attended his farewell party, which was held only three days after our arrival. The 2-year-old guest of honor sat in a tiny chair at the front, facing the other toddler attendees.
They sang a song for Sho in their inimitable 1-year-old way, and then everyone ate cake. Each caregiver gave him a toy or an article of clothing; these, plus similar gifts they had given him on his first birthday, were the personal possessions Sho would be taking to his new home.
He was placed front and center between his new parents, with a bouquet of flowers, for the final group photo. Later, Sho spent his last night in the communal nursery, unaware that he would probably never see any of these children again.
The next morning, Cha-chan cried as she said goodbye to Sho. Confused by her sad demeanor, Sho burst into tears. He was soon smiling again, however, as we finally began walking to the station to catch the train home.
As we stood waiting on the platform, I heard tiny voices behind us: “Sho-chan, Sho-chan, bye-bye!” We hadn’t noticed, but the caregivers and children had followed us. Despite the sweltering August heat, they were going to give us a station sendoff.
Some were standing, others were seated in baby strollers — all were pressed up to the outside fence. As the train doors closed, I held my new son up to the window. I wanted him to see the waving hands until they were completely out of sight.