In May of this year, New Yorkers packed Carnegie Hall to see the Hearts and Eyes Choir concert, a special event where local choirs and musicians shared the world’s most famous stage with fifty physically and mentally challenged people from Japan. The performers with disabilities benefit from the care of Yukiwariso, a Japanese non-profit organization located in the Tokyo suburb of Toshima.
I was among the almost three thousand people in the audience, a witness to an emotionally charged and triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Before the concert, I was privileged to interview Hiroyo Ubayama, the founder of Yukiwariso and the driving force behind the concert, which took three years to plan. (Read the story about the concert and Yukiwariso here.)
While on a recent trip to Japan, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Yukiwariso as the guests of Ubayama’s granddaughter Midori Matsumoto, whom I met at the concert. After watching a well-produced DVD documenting Yukiwariso’s journey to the States, we had tea and sweets with Ubayama. Midori and her mother, Nobuko, then gave us a tour of the facility, which comprises six buildings spread out within a quiet neighborhood a short train ride northeast of Tokyo’s bustle and noise.
Yukiwariso provides care and enriching activities to people with physical and mental disabilities ranging in age from children to the elderly – the oldest resident is an 88-year-old woman – and whose impairments run from mild to severe. One building houses mothers and their disabled children, while others group people with similar disorders together in apartment-style living. Not everyone who participates in the non-profit’s programs lives there; some live at home and visit the facility after school for meals, activities, and sometimes naps.
We visited a sewing class, where participants proudly showed us their needlepoint projects. One woman generously gave me a purse she made from kimono fabric. In another area of Yukiwariso, a young man let us see the medal he received for running the Tokyo Marathon.
Everyone was happy to meet us, especially when Nobuko introduced us as New Yorkers. We met several people who performed at Carnegie Hall, and even though six months had passed since their trip, the experience was still fresh in their minds. I was struck by their immediate acceptance of a couple of foreigners and their eagerness to communicate with us, practicing their English phrases. One young man who sang onstage at the Hearts and Eyes Choir concert used his Japanese-English electronic dictionary/translator to tell us “everything is expensive in New York.”
While we toured the facility, I was reminded of something Ubayama said during our interview in May. Her wish is for the able-bodied to look upon people with disabilities as “normal,” that a feat such as the Hearts and Eyes Choir concert is “no big deal.” I realized that she believes this will happen one day because she and her staff treat the people in their care as they would anyone else. They don’t use “baby talk” when they communicate with their patients. They teach them how to sing, sew, and ride horses. The living spaces are like family homes with kitchens, dining rooms, and common areas to gather and watch the sumo tournament on TV. The rooms that contain hospital beds for the severely disabled are cozy and don’t have the feel of a sterile institution.
“Twenty years ago you didn’t see handicapped people out on the streets in Tokyo,” says Nobuko, “but now it is much more common.”
I’d like to think that’s due to Ubayama’s work with Yukiwariso.