Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A profile of ground-breaking disabled Japanese artist Kimura Hiroko

The intro to the profile in The Asia-Pacific Journal:

One afternoon in the mid-1980s, Kimura Hiroko was taking a rest from sightseeing on a park bench in Adelaide, southern Australia. As she was enjoying the warm sunshine, she spotted the words “Japs go home” carved into the wood. This was the height of the bubble years and Kimura was aware that some people resented Japanese companies buying up Australian land, but she hadn’t known the hatred ran this deep. “From that moment on,” she says, “I made up my mind to do something to bring together Australian and Japanese people.”

For anybody else, such a decision probably would have been forgotten as soon as they returned to their daily lives. But when Kimura sets her heart on achieving something, it’s very hard to dissuade her. Take for example, the time she resolved to teach herself to read and write. Then there was the moment she decided to become a professional artist. Not forgetting when, at the age of 18, she taught herself how to walk.

Kimura Hiroko was born in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1937. Her father had been a middle school teacher in Yamaguchi Prefecture but, in the patriotic stampede to build the empire, his family convinced him to enroll in the military and he was billeted to a base town in China. By all accounts, he was a reluctant soldier who, instead of waging war, much preferred to play peek-a-boo with his healthy new baby.

For the first year of her life, Kimura showed no signs of being disabled, but then one day she developed a 40-degree fever which persisted for a week. At the time, doctors attributed this to influenza. In reality, it was the first indications of the cerebral palsy which would wrack Kimura’s body with spasms for the rest of her life and leave her with control over only her left foot.

In 1939, Kimura’s father was killed in battle. Her mother brought her back to her parents-in-law’s farm in Yamaguchi where she worked long days tending fields and making charcoal. “Most of the produce went directly to the government,” recalls Kimura in her autobiography, Life on the Left Toes. “The war had already taken away my father. And now it was to take away all the happiness left for my family.”

In the summer of 1945 - when rumors were rife that the Allies were poised to invade Kyushu - a Japanese soldier paid a visit to the Kimuras’ house. Warning her mother that the disabled child would soon be a burden on them all, he handed her a bottle of poison. Kimura’s mother waited until the soldier had left, then she packed up their bags and fled with her into the hills where they sat out the final days of the conflict.

The post-war years were hard for the Kimuras and their rural neighbors. But as her mother continued to toil hard in the fields and at the kilns, she carried her daughter strapped to her back and kept up a constant stream of conversation, as though she were an able-bodied child. Until the age of eight, Kimura didn’t fully realize how different she was from the other village children going to school. Then, one afternoon, she asked her mother why she couldn’t join them and her mother replied that there was something wrong with her arms and legs. At the time, disabled children were not usually given an education, but Kimura’s mother was committed to keeping the possibilities for her daughter as wide as possible. Even though Hiroko would never be admitted to school, she bought her a knapsack; despite Hiroko’s inability to use her hands, she gave her a set of pens and pencils. Over the next several years, she kept encouraging her daughter to talk and she taught her how to read.

For a while, her mother’s love insulated her from many of the prejudices against disabled people, but when Kimura was 13, her mother died and she was taken in by relatives. During the next three years, she was treated in a manner all too familiar to disabled people in the 1950s - regarding her as a guilty secret to be hidden out of sight, her relations shut her in a cupboard-sized room where summer saw her defenseless against clouds of mosquitoes, and in winter she shivered beneath thin blankets.

Abandoned like this for over two years, her thoughts grew increasingly dark until Kimura came up with a plan. One day, she waited for her relatives to leave for work, then she dragged herself across the yard to a shed. There, she knocked over a bottle of pesticide, unscrewed its cap with her teeth and did what the soldier had urged during the war. “I was sure my mother would be waiting with a gentle smile somewhere in the next world,” explains Kimura in her autobiography. The poison didn’t kill her, however, and when she woke up in hospital, she was surprised to find that her near-death experience had fostered in her a new will to live.

The first thing that Kimura pledged to do was learn to read and write. Her mother had taught her the fundamentals, but Kimura was hungry for more. Turning the pages with her left foot, she worked her way through the entire dictionary before moving on to more challenging books including, over the years, the Bible and works by Lenin and Fukuzawa Yukichi. At the same time, she trained herself to hold a pencil between her toes. “After about two months, I was able to write an awful scrawl of five lines on letter paper.”