In preparation for our book review of In the Province of the Gods, author Kenny Fries was kind enough to share the following excerpt.
During the time I lived in Japan, I was often asked, “What is it like to be disabled in Japan?”
“I can’t answer that question,” quickly became my usual reply. “I’m not Japanese. Each disabled person’s impairment is different. I can only tell you about my experience as a disabled gaijin, a Westerner, with my specific disability.”
But no matter how I replied during my talks, this question kept following me: like a koan-question: What is it like to be disabled in Japan?
By the time I was in Japan for six months, I finally had a story to tell in answer to this question.
At an onsen, a hot springs resort, the child-size yukata is far too small for me. Even the smallest adult-size yukata is too long for my foreshortened legs. No matter how I tie the obi sash of the yukata, I trip when walking to and from dinner or to and from the baths. To make matters more complicated, I’ve never been good at tying things, even my shoes. The yukata might open, exposing my naked body to whomever I am dining with or whoever happens to be walking by.
One late October afternoon, at an onsen high in the Japan Alps, after leaving the private bath, I rearrange my yukata so I won’t trip or find myself suddenly naked on my way back to my room. An elderly Japanese woman with two small children—I assume they are her grandchildren—approaches me. Without saying a word—she probably assumes, correctly, I don’t understand much Japanese and, even if she is able to speak English, a woman of her generation probably would be too shy to speak English to a naked gaijin—she hikes up my yukata and shows me how to tie the obi sash so it bunches the yukata under it, adapting the yukata to the appropriate size for my body.
While doing this, the elderly woman realizes, at the same time that I do, I have accidentally put on the yukata inside out. We laugh together.
“Domo arigato gozaimashita,” I say over and over, thanking the woman very much as I bow deeply before she returns to her grandchildren.
Making my way back to the room, I do not trip on the yukata. It stays in place, fastened tightly under the obi. For me, this is how it felt to be a disabled gaijin in Japan.
Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember: A Memoir and The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, winner of the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. He is the editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out and the author of the libretto for The Memory Stone, an opera commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera. His books of poems include Anesthesia, Desert Walking, and In the Gardens of Japan. His memoir, In the Province of the Gods, was published by University of Wisconsin Press September 2017.