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Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005


Ritsuko "Ritzie" Kojima

Ritsuko "Ritzie" Kojima, 53, has worked as a hospital social worker and interpreter. Ten years ago, she quit her hospital job so she could take care of her ailing mother and her own family. A mother of three sons, she's a great chef who loves throwing big parties at her home in Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu. Active, powerful and positive, she's up for anything, as long as it's challenging.

Ritsuko 'Ritzie' Kojima
Ritsuko "Ritzie" Kojima

Until I was 2 1/2 years old, I was a tomboy, always running around like crazy. That's when I was hit by polio, which was hard on my family but not at all on me. I never cried about it. I just kept on going, although I was slower and on crutches. I didn't let polio or anything pull me down. I was not born to whine.

I was outstanding and my future husband noticed it. Every day in college when I was waiting for the bus on two crutches, having trouble balancing my backpack, this really handsome guy was always staring at me. We never talked, but when I was hospitalized for a series of operations, one day he just showed up by my bed. Turned out he was a medical student there and he kept visiting me until I was discharged.

Many people assume that my husband hit me with his car, making me disabled and out of guilt and pity, he ended up marrying me. Obviously, that wasn't the case! He kept telling me that he was going to take me for a drive once I was out of the hospital. I thought he was just encouraging me to get well, but he really meant it. We have been married for over 30 years and we are still in love.

The reason I use a wheelchair now is that I injured myself 10 years ago while taking care of my mom. Since then, I've been using a wheelchair for long distances. I can walk with crutches, but most surfaces are too slippery. Plus I want to save energy for my family because now I am taking care of my husband's parents.

Small steps go a long way. If you try to help somebody, it is difficult, so just do a little bit. I do what I can, little by little.

Work on yourself, not the other person. If you love someone, cultivate yourself into the ideal person for him or her. When both partners develop themselves into the other one's ideal, you get a perfect match.

In the United States, people don't look for what is missing in a person but see what is there. Eighteen years ago, I got a scholarship from Mister Donut to study anything I wanted anywhere in the world. I chose social welfare for the disabled at UCLA. While there for seven months, I traveled all over California, visiting all types of workplaces to see how people with different abilities worked together. It was an eye-opener. I wish we had the same opportunities here in Japan.

Making people laugh is much harder than making them cry. I lecture at schools, and people are always ready to burst into tears when they see me, but I always try to make them laugh.

Be selfish! If you are unhappy with your spouse, move on. Make your own happiness your first priority.

If there is discrimination in your heart, pretty words are meaningless. In the U.S., they say "firefighters" and "police officers," but women are still not equal to men in the workplace. In Japan, we have many taboo words for the disabled but avoiding old expressions hasn't solved our plight.

Anybody could become disabled any minute, so when you see me, think of yourself: This could be you. Architects should think about this when they are designing buildings. Basically, architects and building contractors ofgiant new high rises or big department stores are the kinds of guys who would put in one or two toilets for hundreds of women. So they naturally forget to put up signs for the handicapped toilet as well.

I would love to see a comedy routine involving wheelchairs because I want to laugh and be treated equally. Japanese TV shows make fun of everyone and everything -- except people with challenges.

We should all work and be taxpaying citizens. In the U.S., the government encourages the disabled to work and pay taxes, but in Japan there is no place for us to get jobs so the government has to support us.

Kids do not belong to their parents. They are individuals. I just gave birth to my sons. I always respect their ideas, though, and I talk to them and ask their opinion about what I said. Although I have to be a voice of authority, I keep the relationship equal.

The Japanese discourage people like me from having kids. We have three wonderful sons who are all becoming doctors and hopefully they will have an influence on this terrible way of thinking.

Japanese are afraid of making mistakes so they can't speak English well. By the same token, they are hesitant to help someone in a wheelchair.

Never think about what a person can not do but value what they can do. In a U.S. packaging plant, there was this guy who could only count up to 10. So he filled a bag with 10 items and then his neighbor put the missing two pieces in. This way he could work fast and efficiently.

Sympathy is fine, but pity is no good.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK's "Weekend Japanology" www.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/japanology_e.html

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