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Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001

Wreaking revenge by living well

SO CAN YOU, by Mitsuyo Ohira. Translated by John Brennan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2000, 223 pp., 1,300 yen

When I first set eyes on "So Can You," I wasn't sure what kind of book to expect. On the cover was a photo of a kind-faced, bespectacled woman in a plaid blazer who could easily pass for a door-to-door evangelist, while the title sounded like something from a multi-level marketing tract. With some misgivings, I opened the book and began to read.

As it turned out, "So Can You" is the heartrending autobiography of a junior high school girl who survived a nightmare of cruelty and betrayal at the hands of her classmates. Mitsuyo Ohira, former junior high school dropout, juvenile delinquent, yakuza (gangster) wife, divorcee and bar hostess, walked away from her past to become a lawyer -- and in a country where it is notoriously difficult to do either of these things.

Her story begins in junior high school where she became the target of an "ijime" (bullying) campaign led by one of her classmates. Parents and teachers, either unaware or in denial about the extent of the problem, were ineffective in protecting her. Feeling alone, betrayed and beyond hope, Ohira attempted a suicide that was widely publicized in the media. After hospitalization, she was forced to return to school where the bullying continued in earnest. In addition, her teachers now regarded her as a troublemaker, and her parents felt an intense shame that overshadowed their ability to parent her. Before long, she became defiant, refused to go to school, fell in with a crowd of delinquents and thugs, married at 16 and, finally, a few years later ended up a divorced, embittered bar hostess.

It was an old family friend named Ohira who turned her life around (and later adopted her as his daughter). He performed this near-miraculous act by simply being there when she needed him, and listening to her and giving admonishments that were part scolding, part pep talk. It was the senior Ohira who suggested a way to put an end to the memories of ijime that continued to torment her. His solution: Outdo your enemies. Wreak your revenge by living well.

This was the advice that set a fire under her, but what kept her going was a deep remorse for the suffering she had caused her parents. The struggle to pass the bar exam was fueled by desperation to make amends before her biological father died of cancer. It was his dying wish that his friend Ohira adopt her, a decision not made lightly in filial-minded Japan. He wanted to protect his only child's future by erasing his name from hers, thus obscuring her past.

This narrative of one woman's experience told without embellishment does not analyze, offer prescriptions or make condemnations. Ohira readily admits that she isn't a professional writer, and in some respects the story is more effective for her artlessness. What she lacks in literary skill is more than compensated for in a narration delivered with candor and conscience.

The biggest obstacle this book faces in winning readers in the non-Japanese market is the fact that it is written with cultural assumptions that won't be obvious to many English-language readers. For instance, I couldn't understand the depths to which Ohira had sunk until midway through the story, when she offhandedly mentioned that she had been beating her mother. In the West, it is one thing to be "bad" (drinking, doing drugs, driving without a license, etc.), but quite another to be physically abusing your mother: at that point, a line has been crossed. Obviously, by Japanese standards, Ohira had already crossed that line some time before. How is it that this well-mannered, polite narrator could do something as evil as beat her mother? Maybe that's the point. She really wasn't evil and neither are the majority of the boys and girls out there that we call delinquent.

On the other hand, Ohira believes that each person is ultimately responsible for his or her choices. She encourages her young readers to avoid using circumstance as an excuse for out-of-control behavior, and in a heartfelt plea advises them to stand strong and make wise decisions. Ohira has a message for adult readers too: "Some people think it is good to suffer when you're young. The harder somebody's early life is, they say, the more sympathetic that person will be to others later on. But it doesn't work that way. . . . The ordeal of being abused or constantly bullied deprives a child of her humanity, and a child who has been stripped of her humanity is apt to go out and do unto others the same cruel things that were done to her."

Although the incidents in "So Can You" occurred in Japan, the dynamics of peer pressure operate in much the same way in other countries. Similarly, bullying methods, though differing somewhat from country to country, produce identical results: a child with a warped moral compass who will turn his or her anger inward or outward. Alarming suicide rates are an example of the former; the spate of recent school shootings in the United States is an example of the latter.

"So Can You" is an imperfect but engaging book written from one woman's hard-won experience. Those who have suffered from bullying or teasing will find comfort in Ohira's words; those who have not will gain a better understanding of the far-reaching effects of this insidious social malady.

Margaret Stawowy, poet, critic, librarian and community volunteer is a former Yokohama resident who has relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area.

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