The Japanese have a saying that reflects the importance of conformity and harmony in their society: “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.” Don’t complain. Don’t make trouble. Don’t be too different. But this never stopped my grandmother, Miye Sakata. She was a troublemaker if ever there was one. “I’m a fighter,” she would say proudly. “If you want to be true to yourself in
Some of it was beyond her control. Her family was different to start with. Her father was the illegitimate child of a Shinto nun (I don't think they have the same constrictions as Catholic nuns), adopted by a Buddhist-turned-Christian, samurai-turned-merchant couple; he looked so unusual that people speculated about the Russian sailors who often spent weeks in his coastal hometown. As an adult, he built a synthetic textile mill, traveled the world, and developed a passion for all things Western.
Born in 1915, Miye inherited his curly brown hair, his Christianity, and his pro-Western views. In
“The girls in my class teased me because of my hair,” she told me once, “and because I was smarter than they were. But no matter what they said, I could think of a good comeback. And they couldn’t catch me to hurt me because I was faster, too,” she chuckled, as if the joke were on her classmates. This was one of the only times she hinted at how difficult it had been to be different. No wonder she saw herself as a fighter.
When she was a new mother in 1943, American bombing runs over
Miye lived in the mountainous countryside with my mother for two years, and according to her, when news finally came that
Now, ninety-five years old and fighting her final fight against Alzheimer’s disease, Miye remains a troublemaker, absolutely certain that she is smartest person in the room. The caregivers at the home where she lives send polite reports full of euphemisms describing her escapades:
“Mrs. Sakata always thinks of others. At yesterday’s lecture, she generously reminded the speaker to speak loudly, and offered her candid opinion about his speech. She called out several times, ‘Speak up! I can hear you, but the others here are almost deaf!’ She also remarked, ‘You’re not very well-organized. Even I can’t follow you.’”
“Mrs. Sakata loves to help people. Today, she paired and folded socks with Mr. Tanaka. She is very quick, and perhaps she felt that he was having trouble. She assisted him many times by finding the mate to the sock he had his hand and throwing it at him.”
This last “helpful gesture” led to an altercation so unruly that the two had to be separated by the nurses.
As Miye loses her memories of me, I sift more often through my memories of her. My favorite is one of sunrise walks with her on my family’s occasional summer visits from the
Miye is sharp and observant, but she has never been wise. It has never occurred to her that defiant confrontation is sometimes not the best choice. She was always a terrible know-it-all and she has no patience for anyone’s opinions but her own. I know that she told her stories not to encourage me, one of the only Asian children in a mostly-Caucasian town near
And yet, how can I not admire her spirit? If I could say one thing to her, it would be this:
Thank you, Miye. You have taught me through marvelous example that it’s okay—good, even—to be different. That there is value in being unusual, in growing where you’re not “supposed” to grow. That being different can be hard, but that those of us who are different owe it to ourselves to stick up for ourselves and to find a way to be proud of what sets us apart. “I never apologize for my beliefs,” you’ve always said, “I am who I am, and too bad for everyone else if they don’t like it.” You may not be everyone’s favorite person, but you’ll always be one of mine. You are one of a kind, and I love you.