A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Rafu Shimpo about Zatoichi, the blind swordsman; I think I have seen all of the original “Zatoichi” movies starring Katsu Shintaro – around 27 of them that were made in the 1960s.

They feature a humble-looking blind masseur (a trade that many blind people in old Japan did to earn income) but in reality he was lightning-fast with the sword hidden in his cane and never lost a sword battle!

Of course, the very idea of a blind swordsman is ludicrous but the stories were engaging because Zatoichi had cultivated super-keen senses of hearing and smelling and could “sense” the world around him without having eyes. Zatoichi’s sensitive ears could distinguish the difference between the footsteps of a man from a woman, and he could tell that women did not smell the same as men.

Because some bad people thought his blindness made him vulnerable, they could be mean and heartless and would pick on him or even target him for abuse – so Zatoichi was always on the alert because he knew the world could be cruel, especially if you have a handicap. When Zatoichi walked down the path with his cane, he was always aware of who and what was around him.

Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi

Because of COVID restrictions during this past year, I have mostly stayed at home. I carry a Fitbit step-monitor with me, which encourages me to get 10,000 steps per day for maintaining good health, but this is not easy to do if you stay home all day. So to reach my 10,000-step daily goal, I go for walks in my neighborhood of Silver Lake, which is a pleasant area and the people are generally progressive-minded and friendly.

Before the ravages of COVID-19 and the racial scapegoating led by Donald Trump, I was not overly concerned about anti-Asian racism that could be of harm to me. But as of now, there have been hundreds and hundreds of cases of Asian Americans being targeted for abuse and violence and so now I have a sense of being “vulnerable” and having a handicap – the “handicap” of being blamed for a health-threatening virus.

These days, when I go for my afternoon walk, I try to “be like Zatoichi.” I am not blind so I can see my surroundings, but I am more watchful of the people around me on the sidewalks and along the street curbs. I listen for voices and scan people’s faces (not so easy when faces are covered with masks) to make sure they seem friendly and non-threatening. I try to make sure no one is following me and keep tabs on who might be watching me.

Going for a walk is not just for exercise but also for peace of mind, and this has been compromised by the sense of possible random harm, so this is a difficult balance to achieve. While I do not want to let fear take control of my life, I try to be like Zatoichi – to be vigilant and yet not letting handicaps take away the goodness in life.


Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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