Friday is karaoke day for me and my son, or at any rate this particular Friday was, so we ventured into the muggy Kansai heat, dressed in light shirts, short pants and sandals. It was the summer of 2000 and there was reason to believe something special would happen.
It did. We set out for The Big Karaoke Box — as my six-year-old son likes to call it — located on Prefectural Route 43, one of the main avenues running through the city of Minoo in northern Osaka. We were about halfway to our destination, walking past a 7-11 convenience store, when my son suddenly lost his footing on the edge of the sidewalk and tripped. I inspected his legs: no bleeding, no serious swelling. But he was hurting just the same, his left ankle apparently having taken the strain in the fall due to weak support by the sandals.
My parental instincts told me to turn right around and go home, but my son wouldn’t hear of it. He’d had his mind set on singing karaoke this day. We take every opportunity to get out and do something fun and educational together — even if it is just learning a new song or some new words. So karaoke it was today, and my son was adamant about not turning back now. I reluctantly agreed to let him try and walk it off, and so we went on, slowly, resting every so often at a bus stop or on shop steps, until we finally arrived.
We sang a few familiar karaoke tunes and a couple new ones, then started heading homeward.
The prospects for that, however, were not looking good: The sky had unexpectedly turned a threatening gray, and raindrops were already beginning to sprinkle. As it happens, The Big Karaoke Box is located on the same street as The Big Toy Store, and my energetic kid insisted on stoppering there too. I pulled him away from the toy store, wondering just how we were going to make it home — a good 20-minute walk under normal conditions — with little spare change, and no umbrellas, on hand.
Aha! I spied a bicycle, unlocked, leaning against a nearby tree. For a desperate moment I thought of “borrowing” the bike to get us both home fast and returning it to the same spot later. But I let that idea pass: This is Japan, after all. So we continued along Route 43, my son limping more noticeably by now. I tried carrying him piggyback, but that lasted only a few yards at a time. We were both growing tired.
Just about then, an unmistakably Japanese voice called out from behind me in English: “May I help you?” My first thought was to order an early supper to go, but this was no time for jokes. Instead, I turned around to face a middle-aged Japanese woman walking her bicycle. She was stopped and looking at my son with some concern. I explained that he had fallen and slightly sprained his ankle. “So mitai desu ne” (It looks like it), she answered, and asked where we lived. I pointed way over toward the foot of the local mountains, halfway across town.
She said she lived just down the block, so why didn’t I use her bike to help my son get off his hurt foot? We hoisted him up onto the seat and walked the bike to the front of her apartment building. Once there, I apologized in true Japanese manner for the inconvenience, and started to lift my boy off the seat. She suggested I just go ahead and take the bicycle all the way home, and bring it back another time. I guess I have lived in Japan too long — more than 13 years as the calendar flies — for I was stunned by the open act of kindness.
I asked her name so I would know who to return the bike to. She pulled out her wallet, leafed through some scraps of paper, and handed me the only identification she had at the time: her blood-donor card. It said her name was Shibazaki. She handed me the key to the bike’s lock, instructing me where to lock the bicycle when I returned it. She said she would be away from home that weekend, but told me to go ahead and put the key in her family’s first-floor mailbox. I offered more protests about such an inconvenience, but she dismissed them. With a casual wave and a “Gambatte ne” [Give it your best, good luck!], Shibazaki-san stood and watched us disappear down the street, me walking the bike and my son perched precariously atop its seat. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
But my passenger could, and was making the most of it. “Hey, this is fun! I’m riding a bike!” he would say, ecstatic, though his feet were nowhere near to reaching the pedals. “Easy for you to say,” I said, “you’re not the one pushing this thing uphill.” This bike was a rather old contraption, of the type commonly found on sidewalks all over Japan. But it was a lifesaver, and at that moment the rusty, rickety, purple bicycle looked like the most beautiful creation on Earth.
No sooner had we gotten safely inside our own apartment than the rain began to pour. I rushed downstairs to retrieve the bike, stood it up in a bedroom and dried it off. By this time, the thunder outside was pounding and the lightning flashing like I hadn’t seen in this part of Kansai in a long while. A sign, I thought, and sent a private prayer of thanks to the Goddess of Thunder for withholding her holy wrath until the precise moment we’d made it back home.
Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, the storm finally subsided. So I set out alone across town to return the bicycle to its rightful owner. The ride down the sloping, water-slickened streets of my neighborhood, the wind racing past me, was the best bike ride I’d ever had in my life.
I found the right apartment, secured the bike in the rack, put the key in an envelope along with a warm note of thanks and the blood-donor card, and dropped it into a mailbox marked “Shibazaki.”
So if there is a Japan in the 21st century, I hope it looks something like Shibazaki-san. With Japanese systems breaking down all around us — educational, environmental, economic, political — there is good cause for cynicism and uneasiness among us. The “experts” indicate we’re in for hard times ahead, but they offer no clue or comfort as to how we’ll get through these times.
That is what a Japanese total stranger on an ordinary Japanese street showed my child and me in the summer of 2000. And if anything, it is compassion in Japanese society that will see us through these stormy years of the new century.
Japan is not famous around the world as a nation that produces openly compassionate citizens, but take some time to look around: They are there. And here, and everywhere around us. But most of all, they are deep inside.