Book review, from Tokyo – A lone girl in a blue dress stands barefoot with her hands crossed behind her back. A doll in a similar attire lies face up beside her. A hand outstretched. When I saw the cover, I was drawn to the title, 『わたしのいもうと』 (Watashi no Imouto, lit. My little sister), thinking that it would have been a story about a little sister. Well, it was.
Keiko Ajito’s characteristic darkish, wispy lines on the cover sowed the seeds for the atmosphere of the story of a little sister’s suicide rooted in bullying. Only once throughout the entire book, do we see a page in lighter tones. Cheerful, faint, wistful, like a distant memory. From seven years ago. When the family moved to a new town. The little sister was then in Primary 4.
Miyoko Matsutani tells us that they spoke an unfamiliar accent. In school, the little girl was picked on for her shortcomings and her differences. She dished out lunch in class, but that was refused. In the end, no one even spoke to her. She ended up staying home, alone in her room, unable to eat, rescued from the brink only by her mother’s care and companionship. That fragile relief seemingly broken by the joyful voices of her classmates making their way to secondary school.
All this while we see her sorrow, loneliness, and isolation in dark pages. Crying in the playground with a lone withering flower. Sitting apart from her doll. Curtains drawn with a lone light inside. Ever since the bullying began, we almost only ever see the girl’s back, as if she had turned her back on the entire world.
The silent girl took to folding paper cranes. Endlessly until she was buried in them. Her mother folded paper cranes to try to understand what her daughter was feeling. Then one day, she was gone, leaving behind a short letter.
The kids that bullied me have probably forgotten about me.
I wanted to play with friends. I wanted to study.
In her end notes, Matsutani reveals that this book is based on a letter she received from the sibling. She warns us to remember that guileless actions and words can cause pain and suffering to others, and also offers advice to accept our differences to avoid friction and conflict, and notes how this is by extension the key to tolerance and peace.
In school, we had our nicknames. I did call others by their nicknames too. Some had less pleasing nuances, others were plainly repulsive. But never once did I feel that alone or isolated. However much one was targeted, we all had our groups to return to. Perhaps it was down to the acceptance of our differences that had been ingrained in a multi-cultural environment or the ambiguities of our own identities or vindications. Or our curiosity of those things that make us view others as different, that allow us to reach out, grab that extended hand, and pull it back from the edge.
I can see how bullying of an “other” thrown into a group can easily escalate when the group defines itself based on its specific differences from others and takes much pride in its exclusivity, such as in distinct national or cultural identities. But when its members start asserting themselves and recognizing the diversity within the group, it can and will evolve into a more inclusive and comfortable one for everyone. And perhaps then such a tragedy can be avoided.
Title: 『わたしのいもうと』 (Watashi no Imouto, lit. My little sister) text by Miyoko Matsutani, illustrated by Keiko Ajito
Publisher: Kaisei-sha Ltd., 1987