Q&A with Shiho Kishimoto, the author of the novel I Hear Them Cry


I Hear Them Cry

When a boy turned into a recluse, locking himself up in his bedroom, the father turned to a therapist to seek advice. The solution was simple. The relationship had broken down because of the language the father had been using. It had been too left brain all along, constantly critical and demeaning. The therapist advised him to switch to a more right-brain mode of talking, which would see him become more emotionally sensitive. To that end, he advised the father to recall one hundred good things about his son every day. Thanks to this exercise, the father achieved a breakthrough that allowed him to speak to his child in a more conciliatory tone. And when that happened, the son stepped out of his room the next day.

Ms. Shiho Kishimoto, the author of the novel I Hear Them Cry has pored over such case studies and has come out a strong proponent of applying neuro-linguistic programming to restore broken relationships. A therapist herself, she has helped women navigate through turbulent divorces while also helping so-called "corporate warriors" of Japan ease into retirement when they tend to have a tough time reinventing themselves at home. According to Ms. Kishimoto, that's the time when they really need to make the transition from left-brain thinking to a right-brain one. But more importantly, she believes that's when empathy and understanding can begin to blossom. That certainly is a key theme explored in I Hear Them Cry, which won the prestigious Toyo Shuppan Literary Award.

AmazonCrossing met up with her recently in her charming apartment overlooking a spectacular view of Tennozu Isle, a vibrant waterfront in Tokyo linked to the rest of the metropolis via the quaint monorail. With insight and passion she gave us an illuminating glimpse into her worldview and much more, including the reason why the word "understand" is so profound to her.

What inspired you to focus on characters with personal experiences of abuse?

I'll have to talk a little bit about my past, I suppose. My father was the only son who survived out of five siblings. My grandparents naturally spoiled him. Then my mother came into their lives and she was like a princess, you see. What ensued was a battle of the in-laws. The pre-Meiji era mother in law, my father the serious scholar, and my mother who was bullied all the time. Ever since I can remember, the house was a battleground where these three waged their wars.

As a child, I was like, what's going on? I could understand my father's feelings, I could see why grandma was possessive over my father. He was her only surviving child after all and she was very proud of him. But I also understood how difficult it was for my mother who was this fish-out-of-water character there. She had to raise three children and we weren't that wealthy. It really disturbed me that I couldn't see anyone who was really bad among them. Essentially, they were all good people. There was no one who was like an arch villain or anything. Yet they hated each other. They just kept fighting, hollering at each other. I thought to myself, what a world adults live in!

So that's the kind of childhood I had, and then I went on to work in a trading company and was stationed in its Hong Kong branch. And what I realized then and was surprised by was how tough it was to succeed in business. How tough the environment of socioeconomics really was. My father had spent forty years in such an environment to provide for us, raising us, making enough money for our education. It was eye opening to me.

I had seen things more or less from my mother's perspective until then, but once I was out there in the workforce as a working member of society, I immediately came to realize my father's troubles, his hardships. And then when I started to speak in defense of my father, telling my mother to stop putting him down so much, pointing out that she didn't understand the trials and tribulations of my father, that she was having three meals a day after all, all she could see was that I had become a traitor to her! She really took offense and started to say things like, "Who's responsible for your happiness now?"

Our rapport deteriorated and she began complaining that I wouldn't be leading a happy life if it weren't for her. She'd get really vicious like that. So I was feeling really mixed up, wondering what my mother was all about when I came across a book written by Sayoko Nobuta titled "My Mother is Unbearably Heavy" (Ha Ha Ga Omukute Tamaranai). I came to realize that my concerns weren't unique. There were many in the same position I was in.

Next I read "The Way I See It" by Patti Davis, President Reagan's daughter's insider account of what it was like to have President Reagan as a father. Reading this book, you can clearly see how a relationship enters into a destructive spiral. I so related to what she was saying. She's basically rejected by her mother, you see. Everything about her, the mother rejects. Now the mother it seems was afflicted with what's called the "Münchausen syndrome by proxy." In other words, a person with this affliction would make her child ill on purpose and take him or her to the hospital. They'll stay close to the child day and night, taking care of the child, comforting the child. The doctors and nurses begin praising what a lovely mother she is and that's when she's most happy, having found her place in the world, feeling her sense of self-worth in such a situation, you know. Then when the child recovers, her work is done right? So she goes on to make the child ill again, slipping some poison into him, see. That's the Munchausen syndrome by proxy. In other words, the child is used as bait to garner attention and appeal herself to the world.

Anyway, in the book it was said that the mother was diagnosed with this affliction, and when I read it, I was reminded of my mother. She would always say things like I was a good for nothing, and that she really had a hard time raising me, recounting all these incidents that proved her point to my mother-in-law, and in front of my children. The book really showed me that there was a world like this, that I wasn't alone. And then there was another book titled Toxic Parents by Susan Forward. It's really famous and a bible for women in the 30s.

So basically you were inspired by your own experiences?

Yes by my various personal experiences and from observing my father and mother. I kept thinking how everyone, how each individual is actually good, but they end up hating each other so much.

Do you feel writing the novel was therapeutic for you?

Yes that's right! Well put. I believe that art, whether it be music or books, are all, in effect, a process of excretion or discharge. A means to purge. It really has nothing to do with justice, morals, or some principle. It's about giving an outlet to your frustration, about voicing a sentiment like, "shut up, you! I hate you!" That kind of thing. It's catharsis. People have asked me how I can write such dark tales when I'm so cheerful in daily life. Well that's because I've purged all my negative feelings so I can stay all cheery and bright, you see, ha, ha. I start to feel lighthearted through writing.

How does the church setting – and the concept of religion – influence your work? What kind of function do you feel all those settings in the church play in your story?

I think it plays the same role as that of a counselor. No matter who you are, all you really want is someone who would listen to you. In this world if there is even only just one such person, the one who would lend you his or her ear to understand you, see things from your eyes, you can get on with life. But if this special someone isn't there in your life, you either become a recluse or will lose the will. You begin to doubt your self-worth, your very existence.

So for people devoid of love, for people who don't have anyone that reassures them of their self-worth, would you say religion becomes a stand-in for such a presence?

Yes, so true. And that's why I'm in awe of priests and people like that.

Can you talk about the connection between healing and religion?

The message that God loves you is powerful. That is a fundamental idea that can drive a person's life. So sometimes I feel Japanese people lack this drive and lead shallow existences, cocooned in the trappings of affluence, living in blissful ignorance, see. So the things they say sound shallow sometimes, ha, ha, ha. I've had men who divorced in their later years visit me for counseling. They find themselves at a loss as to what mode of thinking they should adopt after retiring from their corporate-warrior days, you know. All they have to do is stoop to a lower position and understand. Such an attitude will simply relax any marital tensions, you see. The English word "understand" is such a lovely word by the way.

How so?

When I first learned English, I was struck by how odd this word seemed, literally meaning, "to stand under." I was like what's this all about? From my perspective, it seemed like two blocks of meaning just layered on top of each other. In Japanese, on the other hand, the word for understand is rikai, which is formed by combining the character for "logic" and the character for "explain." So I used to think, ‘Oh what a nice word.'

But when I was in my mid-thirties, I read an article in the Asahi newspaper that said it was a mistake for the Japanese to translate the word "understand" as "rikai." It should have been translated more literally to something like "stand under" as in assuming a lowered stance in relation to another person. It's an act of humility at heart, you see. Ms. Michiko Inugai, the granddaughter of Tsuyoshi Inugai, the former Prime Minister, who's a philanthropist, wrote the article. She's active in providing aid to refugees.

Anyway this two-page spread article was a commentary written by her and she was pointing out that in an ASEAN conference the talks that were underway between the First World nations and the Third World nations were at loggerheads. The developed countries were pursuing their own vested interests and the developing nations were there to seek aid. To come to a resolution, Ms. Inugai suggested each party must take a lower stance, or in other words, assume a more humbling standpoint so as to see eye to eye. That's exactly what the word understand implies. Stand lower, stoop if you have to in order to be able to see eye to eye. Without seeing the other person at eye level, understanding cannot arise. It was an aha moment for me. I saw what understand truly meant.

That reminds me of the dream sequence where Raiki is calling for help from the bottom of a dark well. In the scene, you point out that he reaches eye level to you. I suppose, in dream language, you were metaphorically pointing out the connection between standing at a lower position to see eye to eye, and in this case, to understand the child at a deeper level?

Yes, that's right. You know, I wonder if English-speaking people actually appreciate the true meaning of the word understand when they say it. I'd really like to ask if they're conscious about such a connotation, that to understand, you have to stand under someone.

I think it'll be an aha moment for many as well. You portrayed Mayu in France as someone who was putting on airs of being poor. I suppose this is a case of what you mean by understanding. In other words, Mayu was actually being self-effacing, as it were, to understand life?

Yes, that's right. The first thing for her was to put herself in a lower position. That was her standpoint. But people who draw pictures all put on airs of being poor. Even I used to do that myself when I was attending art school, wearing tattered clothes and such. Everyone wanted to appeal their individualism.

In France, Mayu represents idealism right? But when she's in Japan, she strays away from that and becomes more mired in the heartlessness of domestic life?

Yes when she comes to Japan, various inner conflicts begin to stir in her as well as desires, and what she realizes is that life really can't be led in a dreamy, la-la land way, you see. It's this realization that you can't manage to live your life in a starry-eyed, quixotic way.

So Mayu's character arc traces her journey from being idealistic to being realistic? Or would you say that she achieved a balance of these two extremes in the end?

Well, yes, when you're young and inexperienced, you tend to be idealistic, right? But when various things about life start entering into the picture, well, so many things surface, ha, ha.

I believe what's going to touch the readers is the fact that Mayu is a sort of an incarnation of Joan of Arc, or the spirit of crusade—the spirit of rectifying the rampant wrongs in life—and I suppose this sense of crusade carries through even when she finds herself in Japan?

Yes, all the more so since Mayu realizes that life can't just be pigeonholed as a romantic notion in the end. At least not until one puts up a good fight. That's got to happen, you see, if you want to show your moral fiber, show the world that you are indeed good.

I'm interested in the connection between art and religion as expressed in Mayu…how are they connected for you?

Yes, well, as I said art is a process of purging, and by this I mean it's essentially about denuding yourself of all pretensions. It's about becoming more truthful. It's about making sure you don't try too hard to project yourself as a "goody-goody." A part of Mayu makes her feel okay to do as her heart desires. But there's always this conflict between the self that wants to be prim and proper (to be accepted by society) and the self that's not like that all, the one who says, to hell with it, I am what I am.

Mayu is attracted to religion because of its symbolism for purity and piety?

Yes. The thing about religion is that, no matter who you are, it will accept you. Its capacity to do so is huge and such a space is essential in human existence. I really think Japan should have something equivalent as well. I want to say to the Buddhist and Zen priests here in Japan to try harder, you know. I mean all they do is appear now and then just for funerals. What's with that, right? They should hold more events in their temples, events like seminars featuring talks on end-of-life issues. Japan's on its way to becoming an empire of the elderly, and since most people will have a lot of time on their hands, I really think many will go to such events. You see, the priests here don't have many opportunities to make public appearances. But in the case of Christian priests, they have their churches and the custom of confessionals and every week they have mass. Their activity is really focused on sending out the message that they are accessible, that they are always close to anyone who needs them. In Japan, the obo-san, the Buddhist priest, doesn't enjoy such a favorable image.

I suppose art and religion are similar in that they both can help the individual transcend the mundane, all the petty worries that are part of daily life. Is that how you feel Mayu views religion?

Yes, she had been pretty much self-centered but then she becomes awed by what she sees in Jean, the priest who appears in the story. It's something she doesn't have: a power that's not in her, a big, big, vast reserve of love, if you will. She gets attracted to this. To her it's an eye opener, like a culture shock can be.

Tell us more about your psychology background. 

Well I'm a bit hesitant to talk about that, but basically, after I wrote the book, I thought about studying to become a certified counselor, and so I began attending the lectures of Dr. Tsuguya Araki, which were held in Shinjuku. He's received prominent press coverage, and I found him to be a very good teacher. I think he's a Christian. He's big-hearted, gentle and kind, and his talk is very interesting. I always had a good time at his lectures. I was amazed by how exactly he articulated all the things I had been thinking myself. I was like, oh my, he really understands. Any doubts I had disappeared after I heard his talks. Studying to become a counselor was such fun! It was like finding my place in the world and realizing that I hadn't been mistaken after all.

Do you see differences between American and Japanese perspectives when addressing abuse and recovery?

America is great! The country is a hundred years ahead of Japan. Japan is so behind. In Japan, if you look at various cases of abuse, the people in charge of handling such cases are all bureaucrats and the cases fail to go beyond red tape, you see. It's impossible for them to do anything else. All they do is defend their standpoint. They're civil servants, after all, right? They don't go beyond being just that to be more mindful of what they're supposed to be doing, which is to do all they can to save the child, to take desperate measures if necessary. I just can't stand listening to them, ha, ha.

Well you know the thing about these well-intentioned initiatives is that you really need funds to make them work. The civil servant may visit the house of an abuser but more often than not he ends up giving up after trying something like three times, simply reporting that the family was absent. And then he closes the book on the case. He should be actually doing a bit more, like actually waiting around for the family to show up or bang on the door loudly or stake out the premises to find some evidence of a crime, like hearing someone cry out and then going in for the rescue. But since they have to work within a limited budget, or an hourly wage of a few thousand yen, it becomes quite untenable.

In America, I think a good amount of money goes into supporting such types of activities. There, religion is in the background, serving as a reminder to people to aspire to be noble, to be charitable and helpful. Such an environment really goes a long way for care workers. In Japan, cases of abuse and such are still seen as just "someone else's problem, not mine." If an abuse occurs, people will say, "Oh how sad, how pitiful," and that'll be all. There are so many incidents that need to be looked at.

In Japan, do you feel that it's not customary for people to report incidents to the police?

Yes, yes.

More recently, according to newspaper reports, the practice has apparently gained momentum. I suppose the trend began after more and more life counseling centers, such as the one you had launched, came into being?

Yes, well, most people are coming out to report now. Career women in their thirties. It's really wonderful to see them take legal action. But the people of the previous generation just endured it all, they just kept silent, reluctant to make waves, remain calm.

Just like Kanako, Mayu's mother in law?

Yes, yes. She just endures, swallows everything, and pretends not to know anything. She just projects seriousness.

Stay calm as if nothing ever happened.

Yes, yes. As if nothing ever happened. Even I have acted in such a way, pretending not to see, you know. That's the easiest thing to do. It's the easiest way out.

Whenever I read books about counselors in the US or watch a TV show about them, I get impressed by their professionalism. It's amazing. They genuinely want to help. And adoption is also prevalent in the US, right? In fact I understand that there are couples who ask for the most abused child from an orphanage for adoption. It's so different from what would happen in Japan. Couples would just look for the cutest child. It's like choosing a waxed apple at a grocery store. The child just becomes a commodity. But couples in the US have this sincerity about them, this genuine feeling of wanting to help a child, of wanting to be his or her savior. I get all teary, really. Ha, ha, ha.

Any wisdom or advise in your experience you'd like to share with English readers?

Advise! Oh I don't know. I mean America is a country I adore. I've learned a lot from books from there, like the one by Patti, the President's daughter. So instead of me proffering any advice, I just want to say, how amazing Americans are! They really dig deep. Very smart people. Like in TV dramas, the characters talk really quickly right? The impression I get is that their faculty for thought is that sophisticated and speedy, you know. Although the lines sound simple in Japanese translations, I always feel they resonate deeply.

Is there any place you'd like American readers to note in I Hear Them Cry? Any aspect of the story you'd like them to take note?

Well, that scene towards the end when the child is drowning? That scene, although it's about saving a child's life, it really isn't a moralistic statement I'm making there. What's going on in Mayu's mind then is the fear that if the child dies now, she will be seen as a child abuser. It's about the dread of finding herself in such a dreadful position in the world. Her motivation in saving the child lies in such an altogether not so noble intent. I didn't want readers to come away thinking that the book has glossed over some harsh truths, unseemly as they are.

In the Afterword, the author talks about your novel as being a reflection of "the unvarnished truth." By that I suppose he meant that it's not a moral tale, it's not pretentious. It's showing reality as it is?

Yes, yes. That's Dr. Araki talking. He's the person I took courses from in Shinjuku. He's really like a priest, very eloquent and impressive.