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Br J Gen Pract. 2009 December 1; 59(569): 956–957.
PMCID: PMC2784546

Book review: A Touch of Sleeve: Hishasi's Story

Reviewed by Campbell Murdoch

A Touch of Sleeve: Hishasi's Story.
Susan Bell Longacre Press: Dunedin. 2007. p. 485£19.50 ISBN: 9781877361791.

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One of the joys of general practice is to listen to the amazing stories told by our patients. Sometimes we enjoy them, sometimes we can be quite distressed by them, sometimes we reinterpret them and feed them back in a healing way. Individuals can heal that way, we say.

However most of the time, we like to let sleeping dogs lie, and not to challenge the givens we have all grown up with. As a boy brought up in Scotland during and after World War II, I was given a sense that two nations in particular, the Germans and the Japanese, were responsible for all the real hardships that we suffered. That sense was intensified in a mining village where the local politics was well to the left, and I recall a Sunday afternoon spent at the Regal Cinema in Muirkirk, watching a film in praise of Chairman Mao and his great victory over the Japanese. The definite impression left in this inquiring mind was that the only thing worse than a German was a Japanese person, and the only effect of education was to bury the prejudice deeply.

This deeply buried impression was carried forward into medical practice because, in 1968, when I started in general practice, the stories from two world wars were still able to destroy wellbeing. There were still old men suffering from gassing in Flemish trenches but the silent agony belonged to those who had served in the Far East. I remember the man from Lennoxtown who returned from a prison camp in Burma and never worked again. ‘He never talks about it, doctor’, said his wife. I engaged totally in the collusion that it was all too horrible for words and signed his certificate every 13 weeks for 8 years.

It turns out that the Japanese have also found it difficult to talk about it, but when Hisashi Furuya emigrated from Tokyo to Dunedin, New Zealand, aged 69, in 1989 and got to know and trust the author, he decided that he wanted to put the matter straight, to ‘expose his insides for public view.’ The result is a beautifully written account of his ancestral background in the samurai and imperial courts, what it was like to grow up in Japan over the years 1920–1991, and why he decided to emigrate to Dunedin with his sister in old age. For him the meeting with Susan was inevitable and the title comes from his belief that ‘When our sleeves touch, it is karma’.

Susan Bell tells Hisashi's story in a beautiful way with precise descriptions such as that of Hisashi's parents wedding feast with its detailed menu and the description of the three separate kimonos which his mother wore as a sign that, ‘she was a good wife, the daughter of a rich and famous man’. His sister who died in Dunedin in 1999 has an inscription on her tombstone there which is written in white.

Hisashi's is written in red, to be changed ‘when he crosses the river.’ Susan sums him up thus:

‘He is like a work of origami, the creases and folds of paper similar to the creases and folds of his life. Even the most complicated folds look simple from the outside, but, like him, they hide old flaws and uncover new shapes. Since being in New Zealand he has had time and a clear head to rethink his understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to belong to a culture, and what he has learnt and gained through contact with people whose experiences and values differ from his own.’

This is an amazing and healing story which I recommend to you all.


Articles from The British Journal of General Practice are provided here courtesy of Royal College of General Practitioners