A Real Life Kenji

We were so excited last week to release Just Breathe!  As people have been reading and getting into the story, we’d have some folks ask us — just how much of this is fiction?

Very nearly all of it, at least as far as the love story goes.  But even fiction can be inspired by fact.  And I can tell you that I had the great fortune of meeting a guy who might as well have been named Kenji Fisher back when we were living in Okinawa.

Here’s the story.

Our first nine months in Japan, we had an awful time trying to communicate with nationals.  Our Japanese skills… well, we had none.  And most of the Japanese people who understood us (and they were rare) couldn’t always communicate back with us in English.  There was a lot of miming, gesturing, picture drawing, and assorted insanity, especially when it came to talking to pediatricians for Ana’s check-ups, as were set up on the nationalized healthcare plan.  We’d be scheduled to go to large group sessions, where babies were checked out in an assembly line style.  All the mothers had their kanji-lettered books for the doctors to check, while I held my own kanji-lettered book… that I couldn’t read!

So frustrating.  So exhausting.  It left us feeling so very thankful that Ana was healthy the majority of the time, minimizing these enigmatic visits with doctors, who could only manage to nod us away after checking her out.

When Emma was born in a Japanese hospital, we prepared ourselves for more of the same. Thankfully, we had an English-speaking obstetrician, and the nurses in the maternity ward had enough English to tell me “Jennifer-san, baby hungry,” which was all I really needed to know anyway, right?

We figured we were going back to our regular frustrations when we were told that the pediatrician on staff would be coming by to check Emma out before she would be released.  Sure enough, we saw that his name was Japanese, and we crossed our fingers that some of the midwives would be around to attempt a translation.  We sat out by the nursery that afternoon, watching as all the nurses looked her over one last time, when all of a sudden he walked in.

Cue the hero music.

He was a good-looking, young Japanese doctor who the crowds of nurses literally parted for, as they all smiled at him demurely and rushed to his assistance as he began making requests in Japanese, smiling down at our sweet Emmy bear.  He looked up at us, quickly and obviously assessing that the only white baby in the nursery?  Belonged to the white couple standing right there.

Here we go, I thought to myself, gearing up for another round of pantomime as we all bowed to each other.

And then, he said, noting the bassinet card with pounds and inches recorded (alongside the kilograms and centimeters), “Hey, are you guys Americans?”  In an American accent.

“Yeah,” I nodded, rather dumbly, as he grinned. 

“Awesome!  What part?”


“Texas!,” he exclaimed, grinning.  “I’m from California.  Well, I’m from here.  I mean, I was born here.  But yeah, I’ve been in California forever.  Medical school.  All that, you know.”

Wes and I looked at one another, plenty shocked as he turned right back around and kept right on talking in Japanese with the nurses around him, smiling and making them laugh, as they went on with Emma’s checkup.  Who was this bizarre man?  And where had he been for the last year?!

He noticed Ana, who was working on beating Wes to death with a sippy cup.  “Where’ve you guys been taking her for her checkups?”  (Yes!  His English was so good that it was as bad as ours!)

“The neighborhood clinics,” I said, “any time we get a notice in the mail.”

“You speak Japanese?,” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Well, that must suck,” he said, succinctly summing up our entire experience with the national clinics.

Indeed, it did suck.  (And did he really say “suck”?  Yes.  Yes, he did!  He was more American than us!)

He finished up sweet Emmy’s exam, told us she looked “awesome,” and said he’d catch us later, in another couple of weeks.

“And,” he offered over his shoulder, as he walked away, “you should bring your babies back here to me for their check-ups.  It’ll be easier than trying to communicate in Japanese.  I’ll even make sure we can get them the shots they’ll need if you ever move back to the States.”

Then, he left, a trail of giggling nurses following him.

And I almost followed him, too, giggling right along with them.  (Alas, I controlled myself.  Applaud me, y’all.)

After he’d left, I turned to Wes and said the obvious — “I like him!” 

I only liked him more and more over the next few months as he, true to his word, saw our girls for their check-ups and caught them up with all their American shots.  More often than not, he’d have to go and find the right vaccines back in the freezer storage because they were so rarely used in Okinawa, and he’d spend the time he took to twirl them around to unfreeze the liquid talking with us about America, about Japan, about both cultures.

I always appreciated the kindnesses dealt to us overseas by the sweet, compassionate Japanese nationals who understood and excused our ignorance of so many things.  But I have to tell you — I appreciated even more this rare group of Japanese-American individuals who we had occasion to know, who easily navigated between both cultures with such ease, making us feel at home and still so totally there in Okinawa, all at the same time.

Kudos to the Kenji Fishers out there and to their assistance to the clueless foreigners!

That said, you should totally go over to Amazon and get yourself a copy of Just Breathe.  Hope you LOVE it!

Disney recaps continue tomorrow, y’all…

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