We are unloading another 1,000 one-metre oak logs to process for shiitake mushroom production. It’s gruelling work, requiring not just strength and stamina but also concentration. And here, entirely separate from the rest of the crew, comes A-chan, a team member who wants to give me a log. I take it and thank him, knowing he would fixedly stand there until I do. He seems mildly content and re-joins the line of log-carriers. Physically, A-chan and his cohorts, male and female, are all adults. Their mental ages range mainly from three years to five.
My relationship with A-chan originated from a stroll with my wife across the Tama River near Mitake. We met Yamazaki-san, a company president from Yokohama whose real passion is woodcraft. He was building Canadian-style canoes, one-by-one, in a rented garage.
A year later, knowing Yamazaki-san’s style, we spotted a sample of his woodcraft above the entrance to a newly established craft beer café in Okutama. With a variety of beers brewed on the premises, there was also a modest exhibit of ingredients displayed in glass jars on the counter.
“Where did you get the hops?” I asked.
“Tokyo Tama-gakuen,” came the answer.
I had never heard of this place. Some online research revealed it to be known locally for the production of shiitake, for a restaurant called Saka and as a facility caring for the mentally handicapped. Upon request, we were given a tour of the place and met the founder, his son the current president, and the general manager. I stated that I would like to work there. The administrators canvassed staff members: “Are you willing to work with an Australian whose Japanese is limited?” The response was positive and, while winter closed in on the higher slopes of Okutama-machi, I was taken on as a part-timer. At an altitude of almost 400 metres, snow is not uncommon at that time. Staff and students form shovelling teams. Here comes A-chan. He wants to give me a lump of snow. He is happy when I take it and express my thanks.
The 40-50 Tama-gakuen residents (we refer to them as “students”) present a broad variety of issues, ranging from serious to critical. A majority possess little power of speech. They understand far more than they can express. Some babble, repetitively or randomly, without evident sense. Most can undertake simple tasks and can express themselves through willingness or unwillingness to do so. The basic concept is that “living close to nature and physical work” is good for the mind and body.
Visit restaurant Saka, where E-chan may appear carrying your tray. The duty manager will typically be at her elbow, sometimes gently saying: “Take the tray to that table. Place the tray here. Put the glasses of water next to the customers.” The manager could do all this with so much more effectiveness and efficiency, but that’s not the point.
The point is to create a satisfying and enriching task, to keep the student engaged and active.
Beyond Saka, most tasks revolve around production of shiitake mushrooms, turmeric, garlic and onions, hops and other crops. We sell packs of fresh shiitake. We slice, dry and powder shiitake and turmeric for sale.
Added to a government subsidy for each student, the extra income allows for an occasional treat or outing. Shopping, for example. The variety of apparel among students is instructive, for on these shopping trips they are able to choose favourite colours and styles of shirts, hats, etc. Many take the opportunity for a mini-binge on junk food – hamburgers, ramen, fries, soft-cream – as an alternative to their regular scientifically nutritious canteen fare. They love their junk food!
As I write, the morning conversation among members of a student work crew rings in my ears. They are excited about the annual two-day trip. We’ll stay at a nice hotel on the Izu Peninsula and have a splendid Japanese-style evening meal, followed by karaoke. The next day we will visit some kind of animal ranch.
For all the excitement and entertainment this provides for students, staff members have a long, long list of duties and details to master. Each must care for a particular individual or individuals. There are medicines to administer, students who need diapers attended to and students who may tend to slip, fall or wander away. Which ones can have a beer during the evening’s special dinner? Which ones are likely to throw up? Which staff members must be awake all night to care for expected and unexpected issues?
A key feature of Tokyo Tama-gakuen is routine, naturally enough, but besides the overnight trip there are other refreshing breaks or variations.
Annual or occasional events include a summer barbecue and an autumn harvest festival. These events also are designed to encourage interaction, understanding, and communication. The aim is to invigorate, stimulate and encourage students, as well as to build relationships with supporters, neighbours and the broader community. Remember, for the most part, we’re talking about infants in adult bodies.
When I first visited the shiitake growing area, one autistic student, muttering disapproval, retreated at a run to the far end of the shed. He and I are now friends. Sort of. Any mutual acknowledgement is immensely important. How important?
Some readers may remember an incident last July in which Satoshi Uematsu, a former employee of Tsukui Yamayuri En (Tsukui Lily Garden), stabbed to death 19 residents of the facility and injured many more. His rationale for the crime, which he announced to authorities beforehand, was that people who cannot communicate properly should be eliminated from society.
Well, from my point of view, the failure to communicate rests upon Uematsu (as well as the authorities to whom he reported his intentions).
Back to A-chan, who wants to give me things. Through the spring and summer, sporadically, he exhibits this preference, without much in the way of eye contact or a spoken word. Then one day we are out in the fields pulling weeds. A-chan is less than systematic. He doesn’t know left from right. The distinction between weed and non-weed, regardless of instruction, remains mysterious. But now he has found a leaf, and he wants to give it to me. He’s looking me square in the eye and offering me a dried, brown, brittle leaf.
I meet his eye with a smile, because I really like this guy, and I trot out my bit of Japanese: “Hey! A-chan! This is a joke, right?”
For a small while there is happiness on this man’s face that I have never seen before. He chuckles and gives a jerky affirmative wave of his arm. Finally, I got his joke!
Communication with other students has also built slowly. One, a very busy and efficient worker, wants to chat all the time. He wants to know certain words in English . . . the same words, scores or even hundreds of times by now. Others who seemed completely oblivious of my presence at the outset now go out of their way to offer a greeting as our workday begins.
So far, a-chan has given me a log, a lump of snow, a shiitake mushroom and other physical items. In the realm of expression and relationships he and others have given so much more, and have earned my gratitude and respect.