Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Tsumako Yamaguchi,
'My life is one that burns with enthusiasm'

Yongmei Wu

  1. After setting a cup of Pocarisweat and a cup of green tea on the drinks tray, I took it to Mrs. Yamaguchi's room on the third floor at the northernmost side of Aoba. It was my duty to supply water for her twice on days when I went to work as a volunteer in the home. Those who lived on the north side of third floor were residents with a relatively high level of independence. So except for changing diapers or supplying water to those who needed assistance, the matrons rarely came to see them.
  2. The first time I went to Mrs. Yamaguchi's room, I was captivated by the many books on her bedside nightstand. There were some that I knew well—such as those written by the famous Christian Uchimura Kanzô, the psychoanalyst Kawai Hayao and Tsurumi Shunsuke. 'She must be a scholar or a person related to academia. What kind of life story is concealed behind the small body of this old granny? Confined to a wheelchair and staying predominantly in her room, does she feel lonely?' I became curious about the old woman who was busy folding tissue papers on her bed.
  3. After that I often stood by her bed and talked to her for several minutes whenever I went to her room. At first, she was quite restrained. But when she learned that I came from China to study the welfare conditions of the elderly in Japan, her eyes lit up, 'It's the first time for me to talk to a Chinese person since I came back from China more than fifty years ago. You are doing the same thing I did in my younger days. You make me recall my past when I burned with enthusiasm to teach Japanese in foreign countries.' I found out that she was an ardent student of human beings. She had taught Japanese in Manchuria, Mongolia and Korea during the war and after the war she, together with her husband, had devoted herself to the world of Japanese welfare enterprises.
  4. Mrs. Yamaguchi was born in 1906—the youngest child on the family farm in Hiroshima. Maybe it was because of the influence of her parents, who had studied in a temple school [terakoya],[1] that Mrs. Yamaguchi liked to study when she was very young. As she explained to me, 'I have almost forgotten my childhood. The only thing I remember is that there was a school near my home. From my home, I could hear the melody of physical exercise and music classes, and the voices of reading and playing of the children. This made me feel as if my home was in the school. When I was a little child, I looked forward to studying in a school.' She tried to hold on to the memories of her remote past.
  5. The strong desire to study in a university drove her to Tokyo after she graduated from middle school. Boarding at her uncle's home, Mrs. Yamaguchi studied at the Department of Japanese Literature in Nihon University while at the same time earning her tuition by working as a private teacher. Though Nihon University is a coeducational university, few female students could be found on the campus when Mrs. Yamaguchi attended. She was the only female student who majored in classical literature in her class. Among the subjects she studied, she liked haiku and English best. Since her dream was to receive the highest possible education and become an independent professional woman, she objected to the words of her English teacher who said, 'A woman is happier to be at home rather than studying in a university.' To realise her ideal, she worked hard and graduated with excellent scores. After that, she became a teacher of English and Japanese, teaching at a girls' school.
  6. Around the age of twenty-eight, a good friend introduced her to a man who was interested in social welfare. Their common nature, both being passionate about their jobs, drew them together and soon they got married on the premise that she could continue to work at her career. At that time, the Japanese government was promoting economic and cultural policies under the 'Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere' [daitôa kyôeiken] scheme in East Asian countries. One of the cultural promotion programs sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was to dispatch teachers to the mainland to spread knowledge of the Japanese language. After they were married, both Mrs. Yamaguchi and her husband went to work in Manchuria. Mrs. Yamaguchi worked as a curriculum coordinator in a 'good-neighbour women's school [zenrin joshi gakkô]' in Hôten in Manchuria when her husband was dispatched there as a section chief in the welfare department of the South Manchuria Railway Company. Later she went to Mongolia to teach Japanese in the 'School for Building-up Mongolia' [kômô gakkô] which was established by the Mongolian government with funds from the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Japanese Women's Union in Mongolia [zenman nihon fujin rengôkai]. As she explained:

      All students were the children of the kings and feudal lords from the 47 ki [ki].[2] I was responsible for teaching Japanese in the primary school section. The classes were taught in Baos, a kind of round shaped house common in Mongolia. Waiting for me to turn up, the students always gathered in the Bao far earlier than I did. And they always had an endless number of questions to ask me. I was so moved by their enthusiasm for learning that I made strenuous efforts to teach them well. I loved my students very much. I also loved the beautiful grasslands and carriages as well as the genuine character of the people. I was really happy during the five years I taught there.

  7. After she had finished the term in Mongolia, Mrs. Yamaguchi went to teach at a girls' school in Korea for a while. One of her students there later came to study in Kyoto and became a teacher in a women's college in Nara. She said her career in teaching in foreign countries had left with her numerous beautiful memories. As she reminisced she told me:

      My best time in my thirties was spent in teaching Japanese in foreign countries. I think I was really burning at that time. Working always took precedence over my family life. My husband and I had lived separately for many years when we were on the mainland: I teaching Japanese in Mongolia and other places, and he working and teaching in various places in Manchuria and Beijing. Both of us were so absorbed in our jobs that we did not even have the time to think about having a baby. However I felt fulfilled in that period of my life. I think he was satisfied too.

  8. Mrs. Yamaguchi fixed her eyes on a photo on the nightstand with admiration. It was her deceased husband, a pleasant-looking gentleman with an affectionate smile. 'He was ten years older than me. So he was more a brother than a husband to me,' she explained. 'Influenced by him, I became a Christian too.'
  9. As soon as the war ended, they went back to Yamagata Prefecture, her husband's hometown. A good friend of his, also a senior who had run a relief institution funded by a church, asked Mr. Yamaguchi to take over the institution before he went to study social work in the United States. This started their careers in social work. Mr. Yamaguchi had taken charge of welfare affairs before he went to China. After he became the warden of the institution, he began to establish a facility to house children who had lost their parents in the war and children who for some reason could not be cared for by their parents. Mrs. Yamaguchi assisted him in his job and became the nurse director [hobo shunin] and later the principal of the nursing institution for children [jidô yôgo shisetsu].[3] Some of the children there later studied at the College of Social Work in Tokyo and took up leadership positions in the field of social welfare.
  10. Mrs. Yamaguchi also helped her husband to expand his welfare enterprise by establishing a yôgo home and a tokuyô home for the elderly. Her husband was a member of the advisory committee to the government which created the Law for the Welfare of the Children and the Law for the Welfare of the Elderly. Together, they also made efforts to cultivate grass-root volunteerism among high school students and local citizens. During the operation of the institution, she found herself so ignorant in the area of developmental childhood psychology that she went to study in the College of Social Work for a year.
  11. She explained to me that she thought it important for people working at the nursing institutions for children to learn something about clinical psychology, because they are required to deal with a lot of counselling related to every aspect of the development of the children. 'Can you see those pictures over there?' she pointed to a pile of pictures on the chair beside the portable toilet. 'These 143 pictures were drawn by a child who came to live in the institution due to maltreatment and abandonment by his parents. I collected them over a two-year period and studied the personality formation of the child by analysing the changes in the paintings. I presented the results at the children's well-being study meeting of the Ninth International Conference for Social Welfare and was highly evaluated by many specialists. It was a major achievement in my life.' She continued to talk about her achievements in the area of practical social work.

      My husband and I established a research institute for the welfare of children [jidô fukushi kenkyû-jo] in 1966, the year he retired. We mainly treated autistic children at our institute. After I retired at the age of sixty, I went to study speech therapy at the Yokohama Junior College for three years while at the same time working as a lecturer in the Child Guidance Clinic [jidô sôdan-jo]. Having obtained the certificate, I went back to work for our own research institute, using speech therapy and game therapy in treatment. In 1989, my husband died of cancer and I had to close the research institute and move to live with my daughter in Tokyo.

  12. Mrs. Yamaguchi lived with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson in a 2DK apartment for a couple of years, and she later rented a small house nearby to live on her own.[4] Since she knew that her daughter worried about her but was unable to take care of her on account of the business she was running, Mrs. Yamaguchi applied to a yôgo home on her own initiative. She had lived in Sazanka for several years before she was transferred to Aoba about a year before I met her. She told me, 'I fell and badly injured my hip when I was in the washroom. I broke my hipbones and the contusions spread a sunset of colors over my buttocks and thigh. I was sent to the hospital but the doctor said it was too dangerous to operate on me, as I was over ninety. So I have had to suffer the bitter pains and live a life confined to my wheelchair and bed ever since.' With this, she strenuously lifted her body from the bed, wanting to transfer to the wheelchair at the bedside. Slowly moving her body and lowering her feet to the ground, Mrs. Yamaguchi took a breath for a few minutes while preparing for the bitter struggle that standing up afforded her.
  13. The most distressing thing in her life now was the stinging pain she had to endure each time she changed her position. It usually took her half an hour or so to get into the wheelchair from the bed and vice versa. With a virtually unmovable body, the things she could do were limited. Although she wanted to put the pictures in order and send them back to the library she had borrowed them from, she could not do that. She also wanted to write letters and keep a diary. Sometimes she tried to write something but had to quit soon after beginning because of the pain of maintaining a fixed position and the trembling of her hand. And her poor eyesight did not allow her to read for long. So most of the day she was lost in meditation [meisô]: recalling her younger days, her dreams and endeavours in the past. She said, 'I have no regret for I have burned with enthusiasm all my life and I have carried out what I was pursuing in my life. I devoted myself to my career.'
  14. But when thinking about her family life, she always felt sorry for her daughter. She explained this sorrow to me,

      I was so busy working and always lived apart from my husband, so I could not afford to think about having a baby in my thirties. I delivered my only daughter by Caesarian section at the age of forty-one. I wanted to look after her by myself, but the heavy responsibility of running three institutions forced me to put my job before my daughter. Many unfortunate children needed my care and love. As a result, I was unable to manage both family and career. Some years later, I cried when I heard my daughter say 'I respect my father but I could not respect you as my biological mother'. I felt regret that I had not been able to give enough care to my daughter who longed for my love. I still remember what she said. This is the biggest failure in my life.

  15. There were some ill feelings between them when her daughter was a teenager. But now they were getting along quite well. Her daughter married her high school classmate, who was very nice to Mrs. Yamaguchi. The couple and her grandson came to visit her regularly and bring her food and pocket money. They also sent her cards and presents on special days such as her birthday, Mother's Day and at New Year. 'Nothing is better than their coming to see me. With my daughter in my heart, I don't feel lonely,' she said. And although her health was deteriorating and she had no friends to talk to in Aoba, she was satisfied with her institutional life.

      The staff members take good care of us. And I am trying my best to maintain my autonomy. I attend my favourite haiku club twice a month. The warden is a very understanding and nice person. We sometimes discuss the problems and current trends in the field of social work and welfare. The environment is quite open. I feel satisfied with living here. And I had the honour of representing all the residents in Kotobuki in giving an address of thanks at the celebration meeting on the Respect-for-the-Aged Day last year.

  16. Mrs. Yamaguchi's wish was to live a psychologically independent life as long as possible and to try her best to keep fit till God came to welcome her [omukae-ga kurumade ganbari-masho]. She told me she had asked the warden to hold her funeral service in Aoba, and her daughter would bring her ashes back to Yamagata Prefecture to bury them together with her husband. She said that she had prepared herself well for death. She felt at ease with God and her faith was with her.


    [1] A kind of private elementary school in the Edo period.

    [2] An administrative unit in Mongolia which is equivalent to a province.

    [3] A kind of welfare institution for children below 18 years old who have no guardians, or who are ill-treated by their parents or other guardians. It is regulated by the Law for the Welfare of Children (1947). See Sakurai, Keiichi and Keisô Imura eds., Shakai Fukushi wo Manabu, Kairei-ban. Tokyo: Gakubun-sha, 1991: 82.

    [4] 2DK means an apartment with three rooms including a dining room kitchen.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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