When Tama Ozaki left for India at 19, she felt that she would never want to come back to Japan. “I was in a real emergency situation at the time,” she says in a warm but powerful voice. “I was eating compulsively, and drinking too. I was completely unhappy.”

It has been a lively night of song with some of the residents of the newly opened group home for mentally challenged adults where Ozaki is the caregiver and administrator. She has been telling me how she went from growing up in an apartment in a big city, to studying the sitar in India, to returning to Japan to live a self-sufficient life for several years in a remote mountain hamlet. Most recently, she has been building a community of people stigmatized by mental illness in a small seaside town, so that they might regain some dignity and move toward self-sufficiency.

Ozaki’s experiences growing up, the dissatisfactions and contradictions she felt, exemplify in many ways the dilemmas facing many Japanese women today.

“As a child I was told that I should never show my anger,” she says. “I loved to have intense experiences such as running head-on into typhoon winds, but, of course, I was expected to be quiet and reserved.”

Ozaki’s mother admired everything Western and sent her daughter to piano lessons and a Catholic kindergarten. “This was less because she thought they were good in themselves,” Ozaki says, “but more because she was ashamed of Japan for being outdated and ‘stinking of the past.’ I had no idea what the prayers meant, or why my mother wanted me to go there. This was one of the causes, I think, of the growing sense of incongruity I felt.”

The main reason, however, that Ozaki chose her unusual path in life was her discovery that she had been lied to. Like the people she works with now, her story is one of overcoming shame and breaking the silence in her family.

“I was born with a congenital deformity on my face,” says Ozaki. “It was a small thing, a harelip, and it was fixed surgically soon after I was born. I was told, though, that I had injured myself falling down the stairs. I couldn’t understand why my parents tried to hide this from me. My mother was ashamed because she felt personally responsible for giving birth to a child with a deformity.”

The internal contradictions became too much, and she knew she had to make a change. But why India?

“As a teenager, I saw a picture in a book of photographs taken in India,” she says. “In it, a dog was eating a human corpse, right there in the street, and I felt a rush of excitement, that India must be really amazing, a really free place.”

It doesn’t seem a particularly inspiring reason to go to India.

“Yes,” she laughs, “but I needed to go to a place that was far removed from the rules and morals of Japanese society. I didn’t like who I had become: smiling and shopping with my friends and then coming home and feeling empty when I was alone. I needed to be free. I had to go.”

In the holy city of Varanasi (Benares), an old gentleman at a tea shop told her that she must attend a concert of Indian music that evening.

“I got to the concert hall,” she says, “and there on the dais was a big fleshy Indian man in white garments who was singing in a deep, deep voice. I smelled the incense floating around the room, and a part of me woke up at that moment.

“The concert went on literally all night. In the morning I walked out in a trance, and there was the large red sun rising over the Ganges river.” Ozaki decided to study the sitar, and lived for six months with a large Indian family of musicians in the house of her teacher.

In India, Ozaki says, she learned how to get angry, something which is not encouraged in Japan, especially among women. “In India there is always someone trying to sell you something you don’t want, or overcharging you, or taxi drivers taking you to places you didn’t want to go. You have to shout at people sometimes or they just won’t listen. This is an important skill.”

It’s a skill that’s been useful in her new line of work. When she started the paperwork to open the group home, local officials did everything they could to stand in her way. Without Ozaki’s strong, determined leadership, the home would never have opened.

“There’s tremendous shame involved in mental illness in Japan,” says Ozaki. “Even today, it is associated with criminality. Sometimes the family doesn’t want the person back after they are released from the hospital. They are worried that the village will ostracize the whole family as crazy or criminal or genetically damaged.”

Thus the secrets are kept and the cycle repeats itself. “The shame,” Ozaki says, “is worse for the patient than the illness itself.”

There is a dignity in having a normal life and providing for oneself after being treated like a subhuman for years in a hospital. Says Katsuhiko Tsuboi, one of the residents, “My strongest memory of Tama is working together at a cotton candy stall at a festival last year. There was a long line of people waiting, and the two of us had to just put our heads down and work, work, work. We earned our own money, and at the end I really felt great.”

“Katsuhiko has changed tremendously in just a few months,” Ozaki says. “Before, he felt dependent and ‘disabled,’ but now he’s gained a lot of confidence and is a leader at the group home.”

At the end of the evening, I am treated again to some of Ozaki’s soulful compositions for voice and sitar. The metal strings create a lush ringing sound like a chorus of bells. I recall her words from earlier in the day and recognize the message of the music as one and the same as her work with the people in the group home. “We have to remember that any of us could have this happen to us at any time, but that no matter what, we are all members of one human community.”