by Suzanne Kamata
Naoki Higashida became an international literary sensation when his first book, The Reason I Jump, was translated into English by best-selling author David Mitchell and KA Yoshida, and published abroad. As Mitchell writes in the introduction to this book, he and his Japanese wife initially translated the first book because they felt it would be helpful for their son’s special needs assistants. (Like Higashida, their son is severely autistic.) However, when he mentioned the project to his literary agent, a book deal was born. The Reason I Jump became a bestseller in the United States, was translated into 30 languages, and led to an award-winning documentary. Higashida has since published several other books in Japanese.
Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8, Higashida’s second book to be published in English, includes blog posts written mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, poems, an interview previously published in a magazine produced and sold by homeless and unemployed people in Japan, and a short story written expressly for this book. Although, as Mitchell writes, “he has a near total inability to conduct a spoken conversation, and a near total inability to give verbal answers to questions,” Higashida’s writing reveals him to be a thoughtful and wise young man. A short chapter entitled “Empathy and Endurance” begins with “It is often said that we people with autism lack empathy and any understanding of other people’s emotions. In my view, however, people with neurotypical brains aren’t so fantastic at getting to grips with our emotions, either.” This book, then, is meant to help readers get a grip.
Among other things, he writes about his sadness at not having been able to communicate: “If I tried to describe what it’s like to be non-verbal in the World of the Verbal in a single word, I’d choose this one: agony.” He also attempts to explain behaviors that may be baffling to others, such as his compulsion to look at Hello Kitty souvenirs before getting on a train, and why he sometimes bites his clothes. “Biting my own clothes really isn’t cool, I know,” he writes, “but as things currently stand this is what I need to do to stay on top of my challenging behavior.”
He also advocates for the right of individuals with disabilities to have a say in their futures. Although children with disabilities often attend special schools and work in facilities for the disabled after graduation, Higashida firmly believes that there are other possible paths. He himself became a student at a distance-learning high school and began to pursue his dream of being a writer. As he points out, “experts” do not always know what is best. He writes:
What matters to people with disabilities is how they can lead rewarding lives twenty or thirty years from now. Who knows? Trying new approaches might reveal new and better paths. I would like the chance to acquire new experiences to be thought of not as a favour but as a right.
As the mother of a child with disabilities whose views have often clashed with the narrow ones of her daughter’s Japanese special ed teachers, I found these words encouraging. I was also especially moved by the frequent mentions of his mother and his appreciation for her love and care.
This book should be required reading for teachers, caregivers, and anyone else who comes into contact with people with disabilities. In other words, everyone can benefit from reading Higsashida’s words.
Suzanne Kamata is the author of the YA novels Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Screaming Divas, both of which feature diversity. She was the editor of Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs . Her nonfiction book A Girls’ Guide to the Islands, about traveling in Japan with her daughter who has multiple disabilities, was published in 2017.