I am a 61-year-old Japanese single mother living in New York City. And I have lived my life hiding the third-degree burns I have on my left arm and neck. These burns were caused by an incident when I was three years old.
It was the winter of 1962 in Tokyo. My mother had a kettle on the stove for humidification. I was playing with my brother, who was two years older. A fight erupted, and he pushed me. I hit the stove, the kettle fell, and my left arm and neck were scalded with boiling water. Thankfully I do not remember the pain and the shock of it.
I endured years of treatment resulting in keloid scars on 75% of my left arm and a part of my neck. They had to perform two skin grafts from the front of my thighs to the arm. As my body grew, I ended up getting large scars on my legs as well.
I don’t blame my brother, it was an accident, but I never knew if he ever felt guilty. He died a few years ago without ever mentioning a word about the incident.
My parents raised me with love and care but felt I was damaged goods. They thought that hiding my scars protected me from being ridiculed and bullied by others. Or maybe they did it to protect their reputation, as Japanese culture tends to hide anything abnormal. But things may be changing in Japan. In recent years brave people with disabilities have started to” come out” about their experiences and giving hope to others who are “different.”
But back then, I vividly remember the words that my father uttered to my mother on the way back from a hospital visit. He was carrying me on his back and thought I was sleeping. He said, “We will have to carry this cross on our back the rest of our lives.”
As a child, my parents dressed me in beautiful long-sleeved clothes made by my mother or custom tailors. I obediently tolerated the hot and humid summer weather in the long sleeves.
The only occasions where I couldn’t hide my scars were during gym classes and the swimming pool at school. Japanese schools had strict athletic uniform rules, and I couldn’t hide the scars. During those times, boys taunted me with “burn monster!”
I loved dancing and performing on stage, and I started taking ballet classes during elementary school. For a recital, everyone in my group had to wear puffed-long-sleeves over the traditional ballet costumes. All because of me. It was a kind act by my instructor, but I felt enormous guilt having to involve my fellow dancers like that. So, I quit.
I was athletic, so I joined numerous sports clubs. But every time I was chosen to participate in meets or competitions where I would have had to wear the required short-sleeve uniforms, I quit.
Despite the scars, I felt like I was an outgoing, happy child with grand ambitions, but when I started thinking about boys, I began to be distressed about the prospect. Would any boy like me?
Then, my father gave me what he thought was a kindly ultimatum. “I think no man will love and marry you. But don’t worry, you can always live with us.”
My father’s words were stinging, but I had too much aspiration and ambition for life. I told myself that I had to study hard and become financially independent.
His words made me strong. I was sent to Vermont in the United States to study in 1979. Being in the US freed me from his control.
Contrary to my father’s prediction, I had no problem meeting boys when I was young. But, later in life, I found I avoided dating men who were wealthy or successful, who could easily have “any women.” I was afraid that they would dislike me if they found out about the scars, or they would eventually have an affair with someone with a perfect body.I got married twice, both marriages ending in divorce. But that’s another story.
After I became a mother, there was a time when I thought, how can I be a good parent if I carry this inferiority complex around? I could wear short sleeves in Hawaii, where I used to have a second home, but I couldn’t do it in the cities of New York and Tokyo. I just couldn’t force myself to “come out.”
My parents were members of several golf country clubs in Japan and Hawaii. One day in the clubhouse, my mother saw a young woman in a short-sleeve polo shirt that showed a scared arm similar to mine. The woman was with a handsome, distinguished male companion. Seeing them, my mother realized how wrong she raised me. She said, “I am so sorry for ruining your life.”
I replied, “I have no hard feelings toward you, Mama. I know how you suffered while raising me and how painful this realization is.”
So, after that moment, whenever I met her in Hawaii, I wore a tank top showing my arm. She was relieved. And said, “I’m so glad that you are now feeling OK about the burns.” I was glad to be able to make her feel better, but I was far from feeling OK.
My daughter and my current boyfriend were the ones who helped me overcome my hang-up.
Two summers ago, I saw my daughter wearing a pretty sundress, and I said, “I love sundresses. Too bad, I can’t wear them!” My daughter replied,
“But you can, it’s your choice not to wear them. Who cares what people think?”
Two years ago, I started dating my current boyfriend, Steve, who is a photographer. Before we got romantically involved, I decided to do the right thing for the first time. I wore a dress showing my scars. In the past, men would only see or be told about my scars when I would undress before our first sex.
Steve asked what happened. After I told him the story, he reached out and gently touched my arm, examined the scars, and said, “Scars make us unique, don’t you think?” Those words helped free me from many years of silly torments and my father’s brainwashing.
Steve has kept encouraging me to go out without any arm covering. I became used to doing this with him by my side, and eventually without him. And increasingly, as I walk the streets, I couldn’t care less what people might think of my scars. It took me 57 years to feel this way. Better late than never, right?
What surprised me was that most people on the street don’t even look at me, let alone notice the scars. I find that many people with scars and disabilities are so much more open about them in the US.
A few years ago, I started thinking about having my portrait done with all the scars showing as a way of “coming out.” So, I asked Steve to take the photos. I am presenting them with this post.
Along with this writing, I am telling my story on my Japanese blog. Not only as a way of freeing myself from long years of a wasteful hang-up, but I am also hoping that my humble confession can encourage someone in Japan that suffers from a similar predicament.
I now enjoy the sundresses that I have never been able to wear before. I am thankful that I will be able to live a different life from now on.
Thank you for reading my story.
photo by © Stephen J Hill