The Curious Old Country Women of Japan


“Bent back disease was fairly common in the countryside when I first stayed in Japan in 1980.

Nakagawa-san was one of the “bent people.”  When she stood the upper part of her body was parallel to the floor.  And when she walked you generally could not see her face.  To navigate her small world, Nakagawa-san had to periodically stop, lean on her staff, and tilt her neck backwards. She was a perfect right angle.  Only when she sat did she appear normal. A severe calcium deficiency and long hours in the farm fields had likely caused her condition.  More often than not, bent people were women who had worked all of their lives in the rice paddies.  On Sado there were a few bent women in every town.

Despite her deformity Nakagawa was very genki; the picture of health for a woman in her mid-seventies.   She had come to the old folks’ home by ko-onki;  a tractor-like contraption that resembled a big garden tiller. She had never ridden in an automobile.

Her comrade, Fujiwara-san, had an adorable round face and a set of nice dentures that provided her with a lovely full-on smile.  Over time I learned that she had a “son” that was not exactly her child.  He was her mother’s. Evidently Fujiwara-san had been unable to conceive and to ease the situation with Fujiwara’s in-laws the bride’s parents gave up one of their younger sons to become Fujiwara’s child of legal record. This brother-son was barely able to take care of himself and never married.  He was of little help to his sister-mother in her old age and winters in their mountainside home had become too much.  Unlike Nakagawa who was probably in the home for good, Fujiwara sought seasonal respite at the ryojin (nursing) home.  In the summer she could manage.

My relationship with these two women, Nakagawa and Fujiwara was forged over purin– a custard topped with a brown mapley syrup . . . and Yakuruto, a milky sweet drink in a container that amounted to three or four swallows that they insisted I have for both had grown tired of the regimented fare served at the home.   Together watching public TV shows like the weekly singing contest Nodo Jiman (throat bragging) and the elaborate costume challenge Kasou Taisho, my conversations with Nakagawa-san and Fujiwara-san strengthened my ability to understand Sado dialect.  They were my sanity from 11am until 7pm while my husband fed and entertained his grandmother down the hall.


18 thoughts on “The Curious Old Country Women of Japan

  1. I ve just read some of your posts, here and there, and some for odd, rather obvious reasons, they sound really scary to the point of reaching “creepiness”. Either you suffered/suffering a lot in there or you just have chosen to play this really sad character without seeking help, or you have help but its a long work..
    Now I am guessing, but seriously I felt your pain at some points. Very tangible. The fact I felt the pain, it means its a great piece of writing, not random babbling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi C. Ninja! Somehow I realized I missed this comment! Maybe I had taken a few days off in May. Actually I remember now that early May was a hard time for me– a fresh wound that is still healing. In any regard I have been posting more as of late. I’m inspired and all of the folks on here in WordPress land are kind. I need to see what you have been up to!


      • Thanks for the reply. I hope you’re doing well today! I’m doing good, as usual. I read your blog because it’s soulful and truthful. Keep up the great work!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m happy you did, because now I got to read it. 🙂 I personally love this kind of content: It’s the right length, tells a complete story without dragging on and it showed me part of a world I know nothing about. It’s inspiring!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel sad for obaasan. The medical term for this condition is kyphosis or the “dowager hump”. Their posture can actually be corrected with braces, chiropractic help and good nutrition if detected early. Must be tiring to move around like that. Bad posture affects organs and nerves because everything are compressed and misaligned. Sending my love to kawaii obaasans! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes she was such a nice old lady! The last I saw her was 1994. Then I gave her my designer sunglasses and she said she could see better with them. I miss both Fujisawa-san and Nakagawa-san.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I used to work for an airline and whenever we’d fly into the Narita airport, the airplane cleaners were all elderly men and women. Many of whom had bent bodies like these. I truly admired how they continued to work and always had such a joyful spirit while doing so.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes it used to be much more common to see these poor souls, but these days farmers have “kooniki” (tillers) and planters to do some of the work! How cool to be a flight attendant back in “the day.” I used to be quite familiar with those flying out of DTW.


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