Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Family overcomes learning and health challenges to make cafe dream a reality

by Louise George Kittaka

Seated at a table in the Chit-Chat Coffee Shop, her family-owned cafe in the city of Koshu, Yamanashi Prefecture, Rhonda Tezuka watches with pride as her son, Hiroki, serves up the cafe’s signature dish, a sinfully rich chocolate-and-cream concoction known as On Top of Mount Fuji. Equally at home in Japanese or English, Hiroki interacts with customers while Tezuka’s husband, Hiroo, runs the kitchen.

Hiroki, now a young adult of 21, has special needs. Tezuka has long dreamed of providing a platform for her son to learn skills that could lead to a viable future, and he is succeeding beyond even her expectations. It is this indomitable spirit that has propelled Tezuka forward her entire life.

Originally a nurse by profession, Tezuka is overcoming cultural barriers and helping others to take charge of their own health and welfare. Along the way she has been honored by the Japanese Red Cross and has met Empress Michiko no less than three times.

People who knew Tezuka as a child growing up in the small town of New Hampton, New York, might be surprised to see the energetic woman she is today at the age of 56. A strep throat infection led to Tezuka developing rheumatic fever as a youngster, and this in turn weakened her heart and resulted in a heart murmur. All this meant that the frail child was unable to enjoy a normal rough-and-tumble childhood with her siblings and friends.

“I was told by doctors that my body was like that of a 90-year-old woman. I was completely bedridden for a time in 5th grade and again in 9th grade,” she says.

Tezuka credits her grandmother as being a very positive influence during her formative years, when she was in and out of hospital.

“She would come to the hospital every day and stay by my side,” she says. “Then when I was well enough to go home, I stayed with my grandparents for long periods, because the environment at home with all my brothers and sister wasn’t conducive to a quiet convalescence!”

She notes that her grandmother’s penchant for volunteer work — for the local Salvation Army — probably rubbed off on her too.

Tezuka’s health later stabilized enough to allow her to pursue a career as a nurse, which she says was a natural choice considering all the help she had received from medical professionals while growing up.

Some years later she came to Japan to teach English. By coincidence, her father had received his pilot’s license in the U.S. at the same commercial flight school as a young Japanese man.

“After the Japanese student left to come back to Japan, a card arrived for him. Since the instructors knew I was based in Japan at the time, they asked my father for help,” she explains. “I took possession of the card during a visit back home, and to my surprise it turned out the student was living just a few miles from the English school where I worked, and so I called him: ‘You don’t know me but . . .’ Things just moved from there.”

The couple married and then settled in Yamanashi Prefecture, where Tezuka was kept busy running her own English school and raising two children. Eventually, however, there came a time when her family no longer required quite so much of her. Around this time, Tezuka had a personal epiphany of sorts.

“I had to take penicillin on a daily basis between the ages of 14 and 40 because of my health issues, and had been told to limit my physical activity,” she says. “However, I realized that life is too short to waste. I was looking for something different — a way to use my skills and give back to the community.”

After hearing a radio commercial calling for volunteers at the Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, Tezuka signed up as a team member for emergency communications services on base. Run by the American Red Cross for military personnel and their families, the system ensures that members of the armed forces can receive emergency messages from home in a timely and appropriate manner.

“For example, when a close relative back in the U.S. passes away or is very ill, the Red Cross ensures that a supervisor on base is informed and that the message is delivered in person,” Tezuka says. “In this way, the service member is ensured of getting the support they need during a difficult time. Of course, nowadays many people hear about such news via email or on social media, but they still must have a message verified by the Red Cross to apply for emergency leave.”

Tezuka’s commitment to the task with which she was entrusted is clear when she explains the details. “I had the night shift two days a week,” she says, “with a 90-minute commute each way, handling messages for both Japan and Korea.”

Following internal system changes, Tezuka then switched over to being the Japan activities chair — a good fit for someone with her cross-cultural and bilingual skills. She was responsible for coordinating joint programs between the American and Japanese Red Cross, including assisting with the hosting of the Japan Special Olympics on the base.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, Tezuka saw another chance to use her experience to help out in a meaningful way.

“At first I was helping with the evacuation of military families in the aftermath of the Tohoku disaster, as well as training up rescue volunteers in CPR techniques. Later on I saw the need for information dissemination, and I’ve been helping the Japanese Red Cross in this capacity.”

Tezuka is currently involved with a landmark project that aims to bring together all aspects of the Japanese Red Cross’ relief activities in connection with the Tohoku disaster, documenting the information on one website.

“It’s huge!” she says. “It will serve both as a record of the past and a source of reference for the future, in the event that another disaster of this magnitude hits Japan. It shows what was done, and what still needs to be done.”

As well as assisting with the translation and proofreading of all documents for the website’s English version, Tezuka continues to offer classes in CPR and disaster preparedness to any group that expresses an interest.

By her own estimates, over the last three years Tezuka has put in over 2,000 hours of volunteer work on the Red Cross website project. In recognition of this, she has been invited to participate in an annual ceremony to mark International Red Cross Day three times. Tezuka has been among only a handful of foreign nationals at the ceremony, where she met Empress Michiko, the honorary patron.

Alongside her Red Cross work over the past 10 years, Tezuka has continued to run her English school and support her son’s developmental journey. Her latest venture, the Chit-Chat Coffee Shop, opened for business in spring 2014 but has been a decade in the making.

“We’ve been thinking about Hiroki’s future since he was a child and came up with the cafe idea. Dreaming about it, planning it and getting Hiroki ready to work here has been a long process,” she says.

Tezuka’s son was born with a disorder that means he finds it easier to learn things visually, watching then doing, rather than hearing about them and being told what to do. When he was young, medical professionals were discouraging.

“I was told by one doctor, ‘Your son is retarded,’ ” she says, still bristling at the memory. “Well, I would like to show that doctor how well Hiroki is doing today! He’s worked hard to master the skills to work in a cafe because he is motivated.”

Looking ahead, the family’s goal is to bring in other young people with learning issues and train them to be able to work in the food services industry.

Located in the heart of Yamanashi’s grape-growing and wine country, Tezuka says the cafe welcomes tourists but that she also wants it to become a resource for the community.

“There is a lot of interaction with the locals,” she stresses. “Mothers come in for lunch after their PTA meetings, and we have elderly people who drop by for coffee and a chat. I really like that aspect.”

Since the cafe opened, Hiroo has become a “house husband,” taking over its day-to-day running. Under his father’s watchful eye, Hiroki has learned to cook almost everything on the menu. Tezuka, however, isn’t ready to relinquish her signature dish quite yet.

“I still make On Top of Mount Fuji!” she says with a grin.

Chit-Chat Coffee Shop (Japanese/ English): www.shokokai.or.jp/19/192131S0048/index.htm. Japanese Red Cross Nuclear Disaster Resource Center (English): ndrc.jrc.or.jp/?lang=en. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp