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Nikkei Chronicles #1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture

Sushi Therapy

An orderly led George Tanaka to the nurses’ station. His eyes were downcast, his face blank, and he shuffled as he walked down the hall. He looks much older than his forty-six years, I thought. According to his case record, George had been badly injured in 1944 when a bomb exploded near his company’s site somewhere in Italy, and he now had a steel plate in his skull.

It was September 1968 and I had just entered the two-year program of U.C. Berkeley’s School of Social Work. As a psychiatric social work intern, my first placement was at the Menlo Park V.A. Hospital. My supervisor, Miss Thompson, assigned George to me as my first patient, saying, “He’s been in the back wards for almost twenty-five years, doesn’t talk, doesn’t do much of anything. While his parents were alive, the family came to visit, and after that one of his sisters came occasionally until several years ago. Now no one comes. See what you can do with him.”

What could I do with him? I was stuck with a man who didn’t talk, didn’t make eye contact, and didn’t seem to know which end was up. I was stumped, but I had to do something. So I decided to just sit with him and see if anything happened. He sat on a bench, and I sat beside him, trying to make conversation and not getting even a nod of recognition. Then I tried silence—sitting quietly with him, hoping to establish some sort of non-verbal rapport. Still nothing seemed to change.

During a subsequent session I recalled hearing that some people revert to their first language when they have mental problems or brain damage. I thought I would try reaching George through his first language. Most Nisei learn Japanese from their parents, and pick up English when they enter elementary school.

I started with, “Kohi hoshii? Do you want some coffee?” “Arukitai? ” Shall we walk? I said everything in the simple Japanese words of my childhood, and repeated the same questions in English. He made no overt response to my new approach, but he did accept coffee from me and followed me as I led the way for our walk. After that he began to wait for me at the nurses’ station for our appointments. Several weeks went by and I was becoming discouraged, as I could not see much further progress in George. As a neophyte social worker, I’m afraid I expected far too much from a low-functioning, long-neglected man.

Type of sushi I brought patient.

One day I brought some leftover sushi from home, thinking that George might enjoy the taste of something familiar from his childhood. When I was a child, Japanese families always made sushi for holidays and special occasions, and I felt certain that George had similar food experiences. I removed the plastic cover from the plate of sushi and held it under his nose for him to take in the sweet, tangy scent of the rolls. He immediately grabbed one and put it in his mouth, then another and another until they were gone. He had gobbled them all in a matter of minutes. Then I noticed something strange. To my amazement, tears welled up in his eyes and slowly slid down his cheeks. What was happening? Was he remembering? I could not be sure because he still did not talk. But this much was certain; he had suddenly come back to life. To celebrate and reinforce his return, I brought him sushi frequently after that.

In addition to our weekly appointments, George began to attend socialization classes where he soon learned to follow simple directions, take care of his bodily needs, and improve his overall functioning. He now stood taller, lost some of his shuffling gait, and sometimes even smiled. But he still did not talk. I never did find medical records on the extent of his brain damage, but I believe the speech area of his brain must have been destroyed when he was injured.

A few months later George left the hospital to live in a supervised group home. I’m not sure what triggered George’s “miraculous” leap back into life, but I attribute much of his success to the delectable enticements of sushi.

*I have changed the name of the patient to protect his privacy.

© 2012 Jean Oda Moy

food identity Itadakimasu Nikkei Chronicles sushi veteran

About this series

For many Nikkei around the world, food is often the strongest and most lasting connection they have with their culture. Across generations, language and traditions are often lost, but their connections to food remain.

Discover Nikkei collected stories from around the world related to the topic of Nikkei food culture and its impact on Nikkei identity and communities. This series introduces these stories. 

 Our Editorial Committee selected their favorite stories in each language. Here are their favorites:

To learn more about this writing project >>


Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series:

#2: Nikkei+ ~ Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race ~
#3: Nikkei Names: Taro, John, Juan, João?
#4: Nikkei Family: Memories, Traditions, and Values 
#5: Nikkei-go: The Language of Family, Community, and Culture 
#6: Itadakimasu 2!: Another Taste of Nikkei Culture