Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Fighting the Good Fight

Tray of Japanese food
Tray of Japanese food

Nicholas Hoekstra, who is blind, describes the tactics he used to assert his independence while teaching English in Japan and the moves required to spar with a Judo sensei.

Face to face with this man, I still feel as weak as a child before an adult. Each time I manage to plant my feet, he twists or jerks me off-balance again; his movements fluid and relaxed like those of a dancer. The men gathered around the circle shout, “Niko! Niko! Haraigoshi! Gambate Gambateee!” and I plant my right foot, turning and lifting this short, powerful man. My left foot slides up to meet the right and I sweep my opponent’s legs, throwing him over my hip and onto the mat.

In the two years since I moved to Japan, Haga Masamitsu sensei has been my friend, my teacher and my biggest supporter. On this, the night before I return to the United States, I’m taking my last chance to spar with each member of the Shishinkai Judo Association. Haga sensei is the last person to step forward to spar with me and, after two years, I’m still amazed at the power contained in his swift, deliberate movements.

I was both nervous and excited when I was accepted to the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Since I began studying martial arts in my freshman year of college at the University of Michigan, it had always been a dream of mine to travel to Japan and experience a different level of training. Now, I had not only been given a job teaching English at a junior high school, but also the opportunity to fulfill my dream.

I was apprehensive about not speaking Japanese, so I took private lessons and learned as much as possible in the three months before leaving. I was worried about cultural misunderstandings, so I read books and articles about polite behavior in Japanese society. I was willing to do everything possible to prepare myself for this experience.

I knew that, as a visually impaired individual, my success—even my survival—would depend on my ability to communicate with people who may not understand my disability.

I arrived in Japan after a three-day orientation, I was flown to my new home in Kitakyushu. Things seemed to begin smoothly. The first several days at orientation were full of new people, new places and the loud city streets of Tokyo. Things in Kitakyushu were much quieter, however, and I was excited to see my apartment and find out about my school.

The first indication of trouble came while a member of the board of education was explaining the layout of my apartment, “These buttons… just don’t touch them. You will never need them.” This I was told while examining the bathtub’s panel of dials. In the kitchen I was told, “We have decided that your stove is unsafe and you may not use it. The Board of Education will discuss another option.” And with this, I was left in my apartment; unsure how to operate the amazing looking bathtub and unable to make a cup of green tea.

The next surprise came a week later when I was introduced to the vice principal of my junior high school: the man “who would be responsible for escorting me to and from work each day.”  The school, which was a 15 minute walk from my apartment, sat beside a two-lane road which was evidently to them, “far too dangerous for me to walk along.”  The teachers, at least, were pleasant.  One Japanese teacher of English with whom I would be working closely cordially greeted me by saying, “I imagine working with you will be very difficult!”

Within two weeks of moving to Japan, it became clear that I would be treated as a child.  When I brought my concerns to the Board of Education I was told, “You should not complain. This is the only school in Japan that would accept you as a teacher. Many other places turned you down because you are blind.”

I was disappointed, to say the least. The wonderful opportunity I had imagined before coming to Japan had turned in my mind into a prison sentence with work release. I did the only thing I really knew how – I fought back.

I began to wake up early every morning and walk to my school before a staff member could be sent to retrieve me. In the afternoons, I explored the city alone, making sure to be seen whenever possible. A friend helped me purchase the hose I needed to connect my stove to the gas—a hose which the Board of Education had refused to provide—and I began bringing homemade lunches to school every day.

The situation finally became unbearable in November, when a seminar including JET participants and Japanese teachers of English was held in our prefecture. During the opening ceremony, the director of our city Board of Education talked proudly of the diversity the JET program had brought to Kitakyushu, including one blind junior high school teacher. The director went on to talk at length about how important it was that the students see this demonstration of a man overcoming his disability. JET participants who I had come to know well couldn’t help laugh at the irony of this speech.

Following this seminar, I made my position clear to the Board of Education. If I were to be used as an example, then I would be given equal rights, or I would leave. I was reluctantly given permission to walk to school and the Board of Education insisted upon installing what they believed to be a safer stove in my apartment.

Teachers at my school began to understand that, despite my blindness, I was capable of teaching and preparing materials. Though I still had to smile as people explained to me how dangerous living in Japan could be, things became smoother.

I was nervous the first time I entered the Minami-Kokura Budokan training center. After such a discouraging reception from other Japanese people, I was afraid that my interest in training would be laughed at. After I made a short introduction in Japanese and explained my long-time interest in the martial arts, dojo members were excited to see how much I knew.  Within no time my blindness was all but forgotten. I had no shortage of training partners and the younger students were eager to pull me around and line me up for stretching and rolls.

The Shishinkai Judo Association is comprised of wonderful people from all walks of life, but the man who is responsible for the positive attitude and warm spirit is Haga Masamitsu; the dojo’s founder and instructor. Haga-Sensei was immediately supportive of my interest in Judo.  Even beyond the martial arts, it was important to Haga-Sensei that my experience in Japan is a great one.

Nearing the end of my second year in Japan, I began to investigate the possibility of enrolling in a Japanese language school. Two years of independent study had given me a working knowledge of the language, but I wanted more formal instruction. My initial attempts at approaching schools were met with flat refusal. One school told me in an interview that it was impossible that I study at their facility. Other schools refused to continue email communications with me after I explained my disability.

Over dinner one evening I told Haga-Sensei about the difficulties I had been having and at my frustrations with this aspect of Japanese society. “There is someone I want you to meet,” Haga Sensei said after a few moments. “He was my judo instructor when I was at University.  He lives in Tokyo, but I’ll call him and set up a meeting.”

Two weeks later I find myself sitting across the desk from a short, energetic man with ears shriveled up like small potatoes. Nakajima Takeshi is director of the Japanese Academy of Budo and one of the most positive people I have ever met. (I know about his ears because he took the opportunity to grab my hand and place it upon his head, “This is from so many years of judo!”)

Nakajima Sensei asks me, “How long have you been blind?”  When I respond, “Since I was seven,” he jumps out of his desk and slaps his hands down on the table. “That is great!  You must be so strong!  Most people, we aren’t aware of our disabilities. But you, you have been able to fight since you were very young. That must make you so strong!”

I know that I will continue to face discrimination and doubt in the future, but I also know that I am working to slowly change the way disabilities are viewed.  In the words of Haga-Sensei, “There is no way someone could meet you and not believe that anything were possible.”

While I have met many people who have discouraged me from pursuing my dreams, I have met many more who are so extremely supportive. As a person with a disability, I believe it is my responsibility to show the world how much we can accomplish.  Not only so that other peoples with disabilities will follow in our footsteps, but so that people without obvious disabilities will themselves strive to accomplish more with their lives.

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