I first moved to Tokyo when I was 15 years old. I moved to Tokyo as a deaf kid who had spent most of my life in the Pacific Basin, in Fiji and in Hawaii.
It was huge. I mean, literally, Tokyo is huge, more of an endless merge of cities than anything. And it was huge, as in cultural shift, figuring out (and then layering upon) disability. After that first year, I returned to Japan when I was 17, moving to the island of Kyushu instead of Tokyo. From there, I spent a year in a Chinese dormitory and school, studying for the language exam to enter a Japanese university. I supported myself by working for both the Yamaguchi-gumi Yakuza and a city council, teaching English to both.
I returned yet again when I was 25, fresh out of graduate school and in mad, crazy love with a Japanese boy. I followed him all the way over only to get dumped upon arrival. From there, I worked in corporate Tokyo for 3 years and then, shaken and pretty much physically wrecked, I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Japan was wonderful and it was awful. It was a merging of all that’s good and all that’s horrible. It’s an intense culture – some of the best moments of my life – coupled with some of the worst – were played out upon it’s soil. For this, it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Shakespeare in Tokyo: A Film About a Man with Down Syndrome Exploring Tokyo
As my daughter has Down syndrome, and with my own background with Tokyo, I had a little more vested in this short film than perhaps the average viewer!
As I watched it, I found myself deeply moved. Here, you watch, then let’s talk some more, okay?
Here it is:
Shakespeare in Tokyo
A Man with Down Syndrome Explores Tokyo
I was on the cusp of being nervous about it being smaltzy at times, wary that it might be dipping its toe in inspiration porn or be spinning an unrealistic “feel good” about how someone with Down syndrome (with the stereotype of being always happy!) will lift up the spirits of those around him/her.
When watching it, I thought how people might not understand how that story line is really possible.
How, in a city with 24 million people and multiple districts, countless towns, it really is possible to hop on a train and make friends and have these wild and fun – wildly fun! – experiences. How lovely and kind and generous and polite and open-hearted the Japanese people can be when approached by someone with whom they connect.
It brought to mind a myriad of my own adventures, being 15, cutting class and riding trains all day, pulling out my atlas of Tokyo and walking for miles upon miles, exploring every inch of that massive beast.
I made so many friends. I had so much fun. Lovely, free, magical moments.
And that was me, deaf girl going.
Shakespeare in Tokyo was a man with Down syndrome. I loved that it was probing for the supposition that we would have within us that he shouldn’t explore, it’s not possible, he can’t, he needs to stay by his brother, it’s not safe, DON’T GO!
I know that (to a far lesser extent), us d/Deaf get that as well. If you can’t hear, it’s going to be too dangerous!
But it’s not; I always thought actually, that my having a hard time hearing was to my advantage in Japan, as it allowed me to better understand the non-verbals faster. Japan being a highly non-verbal country and culture, this was an obvious asset.
I talked before about the connection between travel and disability (it’s linked here, if you want to read it). And I’ve talked about how we need to change the way we think about disability, change our understanding about what disability is (that post is linked here). But I haven’t yet talked specifically about how disability itself can be a means of connection with others while we travel.The thing is, since 2/3 of the planet has a connection with disability (either a disability themself or a loved one with a disability), it's not rare.
Those people in Tokyo knew what Down syndrome was and is, just like they knew what my being deaf was about. There is a framework for it, an understanding. They may very well have a sister, brother, lover, friend, another with Down syndrome or who is deaf or has another disability.
I know I’ve experienced a sense of surprise and delight – and maybe some confusion too – when traveling with Moxie abroad. Like, “wow, Americans have Down syndrome too?” or “does she have it?” and a gentleness, a sense of protection, of love, from others regarding her. I don’t know all that it means, I don’t know how that will unfold for her and for her future.
But I do know that I felt like Shakespeare in Tokyo captures everything that can be magical about interacting with Japanese people in Japan, and I love this movie for the thought it provokes.
Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.