Man overcomes illiteracy late in life to write love letter to his wife

A man who spent most of his life unable to read or write worked tirelessly through night school so that he could one day write a love letter to his beloved wife.

But he never thought his romantic gesture would be immortalized in a rakugo play.

Now that a traditional storyteller inspired by her story has turned it into a non-fictional rakugo act, 85-year-old Tamotsu Nishihata hopes it will expand the public’s understanding of people who struggle with illiteracy.

Nishihata, who lives in Nara, dropped out of school after being bullied in second grade. He helped the family charcoal business and started working away from home at the age of 12.

Nishihata was afraid to answer the phone in a restaurant where he worked because he could not write. The staff would yell at him whenever he didn’t write down the delivery notes.

“Some of the staff wrote them for me, but others walked away when the phone rang,” he said. “I felt so miserable and quit work.”

He changed jobs often, but eventually landed a job in his 30s at a sushi restaurant that understood and sympathized with his challenges.

Nishihata met his wife, Kyoko, when he was around 35 years old. He fell in love with her at first sight when they met “omiai” (marriage).

Even after their marriage, he tried to hide his inability to read and write from her. He told her he was going to the bathroom when they checked into a hotel on their honeymoon.

But she found out six months later. Nishihata expected her to file for divorce.

“It must have been hard for you,” Kyoko said. “I will help you.”

Nishihata wept with joy.

Since then, she had accompanied him on visits to government offices, banks and hospitals. She also wrote documents for him when needed.

“I can’t imagine my life without her,” he said. “She was the best wife.”

Nishihata retired from his job at the sushi restaurant in 2000, when he was 64. In the same year, he started attending evening classes at Kasuga Junior High School in Nara to write to Kyoko to express his gratitude.

He attended night school five days a week to study Japanese from the basics. He found the joy of learning by becoming able to read newspaper articles.

Using the dictionary, he wrote a seven-page love letter to Kyoko and delivered it to her on Christmas Day 2007, when he was 71 years old.

“I am here because of your support,” the letter read.

With tears in her eyes, Kyoko told her, “You did a good job.”

She passed away in 2014. But Nishihata continued to attend evening classes and graduated from school in the spring of last year. He now enjoys writing and working on essays.

Storyteller Rakugo Shofukutei Teppei, who learned about the couple’s story, was so touched by the deep bond between the two that he wrote to Nishihata to meet him and made it a non-fictional rakugo story.

“I never thought in my wildest dream that my life would become the subject of rakugo,” Nishihata said. “I hope that the history of rakugo will help people understand the difficulties of those who cannot read and write for various reasons and hide it from the public.”

Teppei will perform the story of rakugo at the Mokubatei Theater in Tokyo on October 21 and at the Asahi Seimei Hall in Osaka on November 7. Nishihata said he plans to see the rakugo play.

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