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Tuesday, April 4, 2000

Lessons from a life unlike any other

NO ONE'S PERFECT, by Hirotada Ototake. Translated by Gerry Harcourt. Kodansha International, 226 pp., 1,900 yen.

Hirotada Ototake, in his first major literary effort, "No One's Perfect (Gotai Fumanzoku)," has written a work whose seismic rating has scaled off the page: To date, over 4 million copies have been sold.

"Oto," who has become the darling of the press and the talk of the town in Japan, hosts a prime television news show and has become one of the country's most sought-after public speakers.

His phenomenal popularity has been as swift as it has been sudden; and in the glare of publicity, he has been true to his persona -- as someone who has overcome the obstacles of his life with grace, certainty and candor. As much as he claims to love the attention and chides himself for his concern with image or fashion, his public image and voice as a writer are in perfect harmony.

Oto does not overintellectualize his work or his presentations. He talks of what he knows, and while his physical appearance has been smitten with tetra-amelia (a congenital condition in which one is born without arms or legs) his heart has embraced and celebrated our common humanity.

Instead of accepting his condition as a handicap, he sees his "ultra-individual appearance" as giving him a special destiny. His physicality is part of his charm; indeed, as the photo on the front cover of the book attests, his limbs are truncated into mere appendages. We abhor our fascination with the shape and size of the flaps that serve as his arms and legs. Conditioning and curiosity have blighted our sensitivity; yet, just as we are ready to condemn our own narrow-mindedness, our thoughts undergo a metamorphosis. We rise to a higher plane and see a handsome, bespectacled young man who is bursting with vigor and flushed with a sense of his own self-worth. He is the prototype of the self-made man.

Climbing a mountain, running a marathon and learning how to play basketball are impressive accomplishments for someone who has no hands or legs, but Oto has never flaunted his achievements. His most impressive virtue, however, has been his capacity to maintain his dignity when strangers respond to him as if he were disgusting or repulsive. He is acutely aware of the reaction of others but disregards it.

Looking at an old school photo, he says that he can't help but wryly smile. "The girl next to me is scrooching as far away as she can get, with a kind of wince on her face. And there's me beside her with a broad grin. That picture says it all. The cause of all the fuss, the one who had everyone worrying about how he'd take to school, is beaming without a care in the world. It seems it was the people around me who were discombobulated."

Oto's overriding concern in "No One's Perfect" was to provide the reader with those episodes that he believes were critical to his self-development. The text is divided into three sections: "The King in the Wheelchair," which covers his preschool and elementary school years; "Full Speed Ahead," which takes us through his middle school, high school, and cram school years; and "Barrier Free Heart," which recounts and examines his experiences at Waseda University.

While all three sections of Gerry Harcourt's eminently readable translation are filled with memorable material, the recreation of Oto's childhood experiences are particularly moving. For example, for nearly a month after his birth, well-intentioned doctors would not allow his own mother to see him. The shock, they felt, might adversely affect her recovery. When she finally got her first chance to meet Oto, she said, "He's adorable!"

With the support of his parents and teachers, Oto was able to develop a strong sense of self, an expansive sense of humor and a gift for finding something good in the worst possible circumstances.

When he was in elementary school, he was forced to undergo a series of painful operations to relieve the agonizing pain in his arms. The bones began pushing up against the nubs of his arms, and doctors had to lengthen them by surgically removing muscles from his back and grafting them on to his arms, leaving a huge V-shaped scar across his back.

His long and painful confinement in the hospital was like a rite of passage: He mustered the courage to turn his pain into an opportunity for growth and understanding. The very scars on his back became a powerful symbol of his triumph over suffering. "Instead of being hard to bear, that scar began to seem more like a medal."

As we follow Ototake's trials and tribulations, the constant physical challenges and the recurrent taunts, we realize that there is a powerful message underlying and unifying his anecdotes and sketches -- "You don't have to be perfect to be happy!"

And as we come to understand more fully the profound interrelationship between the circumstances of Oto's life and these words, we, too, with all of our warts and frailties, realize that we have found a partner . . . whose own courage, honesty and singular inability to delude himself, take us to a higher plane, ultimately giving us a greater appreciation for our own imperfect lives.

"I'd like to see everyone live with a proud awareness of who they are so that they don't waste the life they've been given, but live it to the full," Oto says.

By underplaying the day-to-day physical courage that he must have needed, by using the deliberately simple and unassuming voice of an innocent child, the cumulative effect of his carefully chosen vignettes works on us emotionally as well as viscerally.

Just as the French writer Antoine de St. Exupery was able to extract important moral essences from the voice of "Le Petit Prince," Oto, the self-proclaimed "king in the wheelchair" manages to use his experiences to ennoble, to encourage and to inspire. As he ultimately overcomes the challenges of his youth, victoriously proclaiming his self-worth, we, too, have made the journey with him, feeling a vicarious sense of victory and empowerment.

Philip Zitowitz is a university lecturer and a freelance writer. He is the author of the interview series "New Perspectives on Language and Culture" and the forthcoming "The Spirit of Broadway, The Spirit of America."

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