Her manners were flawless as she greeted me at her door: deep bows, a soft voice, eyes cast down. But as Dote-san welcomed me into her home, taking short, demure steps with her toes pointed in at proper angles, I noticed what she was wearing. Nothing matched! To Western eyes, it was disconcerting to see a red-striped blouse, accented by an orange polka dot scarf, above a purple plaid skirt.

While serving in Japan as a global worker, I had received a phone call from a Christian friend, asking if I could visit Dote-san, a lady in my neighborhood. Tucking my Bible and a street map in the basket of my bicycle, I started out one afternoon to find Dote-san’s house

After a few wrong turns, I finally located her home. Graciously received at the genkan (entrance), I spent the next few hours talking and drinking tea with this unique lady, the wife of a juku (preparatory school) teacher.

This encounter led to a lasting friendship with Dote-san. In time, both she and her husband became Christians.

Sometimes Dote-san volunteered to help me pass out bulletins on church activities at the local train station or at elementary schools in the neighborhood. Her slip usually peeked out below an unpressed hem and failed to hide twisted sagging nylons, and her graying hair was always in disarray.

One day as Dote-san and I returned from Osaka by train, her unpredictable slip fell right down to her ankles as we stepped onto the platform amid the shoving crowds. With her infectious giggle, she quickly tucked the slip into her handbag.

On another occasion, as we headed back to the train station after a women’s luncheon, I noticed Dote-san attempting to conceal a limp. A blister on her foot was rubbing against her shoe, and the hot, humid weather seemed to add to her discomfort.

“It really hurts, doesn’t it, Dote-san?” I sympathized.

“Daijobu desu yo (It’s all right),” she whispered.

“I have a bandage. It may not stay on over nylons, but when we get on the train, try it.”

“Doo mo arigatoo gozaimashita (Thank you very much).” Dote-san bowed politely as she accepted the bandage and tucked it in her handbag.

The train station was a welcome sight. Purchasing our tickets, we headed through the wicket and up the stairs to the tracks.

As soon as we entered the train, Dote-san, unabashed, proceed to pull down her panty hose and apply the bandage to the blister. Other passengers looked away in embarrassment. This, too, was Dote-san.

One job everyone avoided at church was cleaning the squat-type toilet. Time after time I noticed Dote-san emerging from the cubicle with cleanser and a sponge in hand. Not many at church knew she kept the flower vases replenished. And few noticed her working quietly behind the scenes, cleaning up while others chatted on and on after meetings. They noticed only when she was absent.

In quiet unassuming ways, she filled a need in my life, too. Maybe it was a telephone call to see if my cold was better, or a short visit to drop off some fresh fish from the market, or a box of o-sembi (rice crackers). Once I needed to be hospitalized. It was during the uncomfortable tsuyu (rainy season). Dote-san brought my mail and snacks; she ran my errands, washed my lingerie, and prayed with me.

One late afternoon after running some errands for me, she noticed that my fresh fruit supply was depleted. Without saying a work, she went out into the rain again, and walked the long distance down the hill from the hospital to a small shop near the train station to buy me a fresh supply. Returning completely drenched, she smiled, set the fruit down by my bed, quietly bowed and said good night. Her visits healed my spirits like balm. Her infectious laughter made me forget my troubles. This was my friend Dote-san.

At last it was time for me to leave Japan. As I prepared to board my plane, standing in the crowd was Dote-san. She bowed deeply, shoved a slender package into my hands and then burst into tears.

After finding my seat on the plane, I opened her gift. The scent of sandalwood wafted through the wrapping. A blue silk fan, trimmed in delicate cherry blossoms, emerged. So like my friend. On the outside, just and ordinary box; on the inside, a charm no one could forget. The fragrance — and the memories of my friend Dote-san —lingered in my heart as the plane climbed into the skies.


©2001 Thrive

View the original print magazine where this article was first published.