Nobody Knows

It’s autumn in Tokyo, and twelve-year-old Akira and his younger siblings, Kyoko, Shige and little Yuki, have just moved into a new apartment with their mother. Akira hopes it’s a new start for all of them, even though the little ones are not allowed to leave the apartment or make any noise, since the landlord doesn’t permit young children in the building. But their mother soon begins to spend more and more time away from the apartment, and then one morning Akira finds an envelope of money and a note. She has gone away with her new boyfriend for a while. Akira bravely shoulders the responsibility for the family. He shops and cooks and pays the bills, while Kyoko does the laundry. The children spend their time watching TV, drawing and playing games, wishing they could go to school and have friends like everyone else. Then one morning their mother breezes in with gifts for everyone, but she is soon gone again. Months pass, until one spring day Akira decides they have been prisoners in the apartment long enough. For a brief time the children bask in their freedom. They shop, explore, plant a little balcony garden, have the playground to themselves. Even when the bank account is empty and the utilities are turned off and the children become increasingly ill-kempt, it seems that they have been hiding for nothing. In the bustling big city, nobody notices them. It’s as if nobody knows. But by August the city is sweltering, and the children are too malnourished and exhausted even to go out. Akira is afraid to contact child welfare, remembering the last time the authorities intervened, and the family was split up. Eventually even he can’t hold it together any more, and then one day tragedy strikes…

Related: Asia, Intermediate (ages 9-14), Japan, Realistic Fiction

One thought on “Nobody Knows

  1. Ebersole & Sung says:

    A few weeks ago you mentioned children’s stories of losing their childhood referencing another story we discussed. As I read this week’s story, Nobody Knows by Shelley Tanaka, I found this idea particularly compelling. The story begins when twelve-year old Akira Fukushima and his mother meet the landlords of a new apartment complex that doesn’t permit young children in the building. He hopes it will be a new start, but soon his youthful mother leaves with another boyfriend and Akira assumes the full responsibility to care for his three younger half-siblings – Kyoko, age 10; Shigeru, age 8; and Yuki, age 4. He is driven to keep his siblings together, no matter what happens.
    Akira is embarking on adolescence, and he longs to do things that normal kids at his age do – go to school, own a Jetfire action figure, a baseball glove and play baseball; but instead he must budget the meager funds his mother has left, shop for and cook food, and pay the water and electricity bills. I found this sense of responsibility and obligation to care for others particularly admirable. Somehow he possessed an internal motivation and drive – in essence he gave up his childhood so he could keep his family together. It made me wonder – What gives one person this trait and not another? How are values such as responsibility and integrity learned? What gives a person such self-control? For Akira didn’t have role models in his life but somehow he stayed with his half-siblings when his mother didn’t and he never stole or took his friend Saki’s money because she earned it through undesirable means. Perhaps, it was his own feeling of abandonment, which drove his own actions.
    This was another powerful story that pushed us to think about resilient children who are mentally, physically, and emotionally strong and can survive in difficult situations.
    Yoo Kyung:
    I agree. This story reminds me of previous stories of children whose “normal” childhood was compromised by socio-political and economical difficulties in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Vietnam in the 70’s. Perhaps Nobody Knows was extra powerful to me because of those recent readings. First of all, this is one of a few contemporary realistic fiction novels recently published in the U.S. about Japan. While I am not normally surprised about hardships involving children in a war-zone, Nobody Knows shocked me because it is set in contemporary Japan. What those young children go through is, in many ways, a worse traumatic experience than children in war. The emotional discouragement they undergo is deep and scarring. Because Akira’s own parents deliberately abandon him and his other siblings, the emotional attachment to their mother makes the situation all the harder to accept. Parvan, Salva, and Hà in earlier My Take/Your Take books went through different war-zone experiences, yet were able to stay mentally strong and hopeful because they could (or still thought they could) count on their parent(s). Even Salva, in A Long Walk To Water, wasn’t sure whether their parents were still alive but she still drew sustenance through the hope that she was going to return. Mothers in these stories serve as a strong and essential backbone, yet in Nobody Knows, the vanished and irresponsibly selfish mother is the catalyst for anxiety and disappointment. Eventually her long-term absence manifests itself when, as orphans,-the state discontinues financial supports. Some communities in Japan may reflect similar current problems like Akira and his younger siblings go through where everything, water, electricity, renter status, food, sanitation, etc. are withrdrawn. Being unable to enjoy a normal childhood, like going to school and having grown-up guardians may be a secondary issue to real issues like providing daily necessities to younger siblings — Akira’s everyday battle. As the eldest, Akira is not just responsible for his younger siblings as the eldest, but additionally responsible for his irresponsible parents as he is one of the consequences of their irresponsibility. To me, Akira seems to interpret his mission as one to keep his siblings from being separated. That is his goal and the source of his empowerment and helps him bear an unfair life burden. Books like Nobody Knows can challenge our easy sympathy for children in war zones while Nobody Knows asks to grapple with situations that we know should be safer. In reality, the world in which we live is much more complex than that and Nobody Knows perfectly invites us to rethink our simplified view of childhood in a global community.

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