another “small” story, japan

I love retelling “small” stories of people going about the task of daily living, like you and me. Found another one about a Japanese family trying to do what they would do under normal circumstances, in today’s Wall Street Journal. Seems to me that’s human resilience at its best. But, truthfully, what else can survivors do…but live. To stop is to die. And why would they choose to do that, when they’ve been spared. Instead they’ve taken the gift of life and moved on, vowing to remember those who have fallen.

Greater Tokyo Area is the world's most populou...

Image via Wikipedia

A Tokyo Reunion
by Michael Judge

American Airlines flight 153 from Chicago to Tokyo was nearly full and pleasantly mundane–young mothers bounced infants in the aisles, businessmen worked in the glow of their laptops, elderly couples stretched their legs near the restrooms. In the wake of the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, with the number of dead or missing surpassing more than 20,000, the ordinariness of the 13-hour flight was a comfort.

Given the fear of aftershocks and the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant some 150 miles northeast of Tokyo, my wife Masae and I had joked that we’d be the only ones on the Saturday flight. Shortly before take-off, the Associated Press ran a banner on their mobile site saying that traces of “radioactive iodine” had been detected in Tokyo’s drinking water. Spinach and milk were also “tainted.” Foreigners were already leaving in droves–a mass exodus from the world’s densest metropolis was feared.

Indeed, when we told friends and acquaintances we were planning to return to Tokyo, my wife’s hometown and the city where we met 17 years ago this spring, some treated us like characters from Albert Camus‘s “The Plague.” Didn’t we understand the risks involved? Why subject ourselves to possible contamination if it could be avoided? Many governments were sending planes to evacuate overseas nationals. Washington warned against all “nonessential” travel to Tokyo.

Nonessential–a strange word. Was it nonessential to attend a family wedding we’d been looking forward to for months? When the wedding was eventually cancelled, was it nonessential to be near loved ones at a time when so many had lost theirs? My wife and I had chosen to live in America–we hadn’t chosen to abandon our family in Japan.

Nippon Professional Baseball

Image via Wikipedia

Friends in and around Tokyo assured us that life here was continuing as close to normal as possible. To save electricity, trains ran less frequently and some businesses closed earlier. There were long but orderly lines at gas stations. After much debate, opening day of Nippon Professional Baseball, the equivalent of Major League Baseball, was delayed–by four days.

Still, on the train into the city on Sunday, we were relieved to see kids playing baseball and soccer in the parks. Laundry hung from clotheslines outside apartment buildings. Restaurants and cafes were busy outside the Nippori train station. Tokyo was full of life and open for business–even as cities as far away as Los Angeles sold out of potassium-iodine pills over fears of trans-Pacific traces of radiation.

Puburiba, the public bath run by my wife’s parents, was bustling late Sunday afternoon: Elderly men and women and families of all sizes and ages sought out the communal comfort only a sento can provide. But before we could settle in, we jumped into my father-in-law’s car and drove across town to dine with our nephew Tomo and his fiancee Yurie. They’d decided to postpone their March 26 wedding plans until September, but they remained in high spirits. Over ice-cold beer and the best Korean barbeque I’ve ever had, Tomo, Yurie and a handful of relatives and friends gave thanks for our being together, no matter the occasion.

Ryounkaku before and after Great Kanto earthquake

Image via Wikipedia

On Wednesday we plan to visit the grave of my wife’s maternal grandmother, Makino, in the town of Noto on the Japanese Sea. She died last year at the age of 100. She was 13 when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 struck, leveling Tokyo and surrounding cities and killing between 100,000 and 140,000 people. My wife’s paternal grandmother, Kaneyo, and her two youngest children died after fleeing the firebombing of Tokyo. The bombing commenced on Nov. 17, 1944, and didn’t stop until Aug. 15, 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender. More than 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, nearly all civilians, died in those nine months.

But the three didn’t die in Tokyo: They died in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, 220 miles north of the capital. Weakened by the journey, illness and starvation, they couldn’t digest the rice they were finally given in Yamagata, and they died of “burst stomachs,” according to my father-in-law, Yasumasa. Miraculously, he was the only survivor.

Nakamise-dōri

Image by midwinterphoto via Flickr

Yesterday, while we were shopping at a crowded Ikebukuro department store, news came that gray smoke was rising from two of the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, forcing workers to pull back momentarily. Shopping continued apace. News that an 8-year-old woman from Miyagi Prefecture and her 16-year-old grandson had survived for nine days in the wreckage of their home–which had been moved one kilometer by the force of the tsunami–filled the television, and was on everyone’s lips.

Mr. Judge writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.

“small” stories…big impact…hugmamma.

Advertisements

one family’s story, japan

TV news reports are jam-packed with videos of the destruction in Japan, including snippets of interviews with those in the midst of it all. Somehow viewing the catastrophe on such a large-scale makes it impersonal, like it’s happening over there, not here. We breathe a collective sigh of relief, and go about our business. I pause every now and then unable to wrap my brain around the fact that under the same blue sky, someone in Japan is desperately trying to hang onto any visible shred of hope that she, and her family, will once again live a normal life, and here I am, living a normal life. “There but for the grace of God…”

Rather than try to retell the story of Hideo Higuchi and his family, I’m giving writer Eric Bellman that privilege since he authored “Winding Road to Reunion Bridges Three Generations,” which appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal

Ishinomaki city miyagi pref

Image via Wikipedia

ISHINOMAKI, Japan–Hideo Higuchi and his wife sat in their truck, staring at the long lake in front of them. Beneath was the road to their daughter’s home.

The Higuchi’s hadn’t heard from her since Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. Water and debris had blocked the road into town. Phone networks remained down. So when floodwaters receded enough Tuesday to let them through, the couple rushed to Ishinomaki on Japan’s devastated eastern coast, where their daughter lived with her husband and three sons.

“I am not from here,” said the 70-year-old rice farmer, as his bloodshot eyes tried to measure whether his boxy white truck could make it through the knee-deep water. “I don’t know any other way around.”

Flag of Ishinomaki, Miyagi

Image via Wikipedia

“What is the damage like in Ishinomaki?” his wife, Sayono, 68, anxiously asked a stranger. The Higuchis live 15 miles inland from Ishinomaki, in a small city shaken by the earthquake but unaffected by the tsunami.

The Higuchis turned their truck around. The bed of the Isuzu, emptied of the usual farming equipment, held a cardboard box of food and drinks. They were for their daughter’s family, if the family could be found.

The couple decided to try to find the primary school of their three grandsons–Ryo, 12, and the 10-year-old twins, Chihiro and Masaki. In many small towns like this one, schools are often the tallest buildings and likeliest emergency shelters.

But the Higuchis weren’t sure of the school’s name. Pointing to a map, Mr. Higuchi asked people on the street. “Is there a grade school around here? Is it an evacuation center?”

Port ishinomaki miyagi pref

Image via Wikipedia

They wound through the narrow back streets of Ishinomaki, a town of 164,000 people. On the roadsides were sights rarely seen in Japan: men in military fatigues directing traffic, girls with plastic bags taped over their sneakers, old men grilling a fish over a fire in an oil can. A middle-aged woman, bowing with a particularly Japanese shame at the thought of inconveniencing a stranger, held a sign: “Please give me a ride to Watanoha.”

Mr. Higuchi stepped out of his truck and adjusted his baseball cap as he talked to some neighborhood boys. The grade school was underwater, the boys said. People there might have been taken out by helicopter.

The couple found the middle school. To search the four floors of evacuees, they split up. Each room had a roster pinned outside the door, naming the people who slept there and their age. Mr. Higuchi, with thick glasses and poor eyesight, went through more than 10 rosters.

“Oikawa…Oikawa…Oikawa,” he said repeating the married name of his daughter, Miyuki. There are a lot of Oikawas here, so his crooked fingers paused often as he went down the lists.

When Mr. Higuchi asked a cluster of kids sitting near a third-floor window if there was a grade school nearby, they answered obediently. “See that yellow building with a green roof? It’s behind there,” one boy said.

Children in Kimono, circa 1960s. In Ishinomaki...

Image via Wikipedia

Beyond the yellow building was the grade school. It wasn’t underwater. It was eerily quiet. There were evacuees on the third floor, the Higuchis were told. The couple quickly walked up the steps, moving faster than they had all day. Before she finished sliding open the first classroom door, Ms. Higuchi gasped. “Ryo!” She waved her hand, apparently reluctant to enter the room. “Ryo, come here.”

It was her grandson. In the room, also, were their son-in-law’s parents. “You’re all right!” they shouted at the Higuchis.

Three adults, in a display of emotion seldom seen in Japan, jumped up and down holding hands, hugged and cried. The three grandsons were then dragged into the group hugs.

The Higuchis learned their daughter’s home had been ruined by the tsunami shortly after their daughter, the only one home at the time of the earthquake, evacuated and met the rest of her family at the school. The daughter and her husband were there now, seeing if any of their belongings were salvageable. “Thank God, thank God,” the four grandparents repeated, wiping away tears and smiling.

Mr. Higuchi brought his eldest grandson down to the truck to give him one of his favorite drinks. Ryo, wearing the bright blue gym uniform he was wearing when the earthquake hit Friday, started to sip.

“We will go meet our daughter now,” said Mr. Higuchi. Asked if he knew the way, he said, “I’m OK now. My grandson is here.”

“hocus pocus!” real estate for sale!

When we moved from the east coast 13 years ago, we practiced a little “hocus pocus” when selling our home in Redding, Connecticut. One of the smallest houses in town, our 100-year-old Victorian farmhouse, at 1,500 square feet, was about half the size of our current one. While it lacked an abundance of living space, our 3 bedroom, 1 bath home was full to overflowing with charm. It provided the perfect backdrop for my collection of antiques and memorabilia. But when it was time to sell, we weren’t sure prospective buyers would love our one-of-a-kind, vintage home.

My husband left my young daughter and me before Christmas, to begin his new job here in the Pacific Northwest. I was anxious to sell quickly so that we could all be reunited. Just before he returned to spend the holiday with us, I learned from a friend that a neighbor and friend of hers had just died of a heart attack at age 42. The loss was especially devastating because she left behind two very young daughters, the littler of whom wore a helmet because she suffered some neurological disorder. The husband owned a local ice cream shop in a town next door to ours. Evidently their marriage had been strained because he was very controlling of his wife’s time, and her friendships.

I was so saddened for the little girls who were now without a mom, that the sale of our house seemed inconsequential. Instead of praying for our family’s reunion, I prayed hard that the children would be okay. I cried that they would be okay.

When my thoughts returned to the sale of our home, a dear friend, Carol, offered some unusual advice. While it seemed like religious superstition, we were open to anything after 2 months without a firm offer. In the dead of winter, we buried a small statue of St.  Joseph, head first, facing the street, in the dirt in front of our house. Needless to say my husband had a difficult time digging a hole in the frozen ground. But he did. And guess what? Our home went into contract later that week! We had bought it 14 or 15 years earlier for $115,000, and sold it for $245,000. When we moved, St. Joseph traveled with us. We had to dig up his statue and honor him with a place in our new home, which we have. He stands among my collectible dishware in a red, painted cupboard.

With foreclosures on the rise recently, sellers and buyers “are turning to witches, psychics, priests and feng shui consultants, among others, to bless or exorcise dwellings,” or “to help move…property stuck  on the market.” The Wall Street Journal’s “The Housing Slump Has Salem  On a Witch Hunt Again,” indicates that the ancient tradition of housecleansing is making a comeback. Tony Barletta bought a foreclosed home in disrepair at 31 Arbella St. Because of its bad vibes, he invited 70-year-old witch, Lori Bruno, who claims to be descended from 16th century Italian witches, and warlock Christian Day to process through the house casting out the negativity. “They clanged bells and sprayed holy water, poured kosher salt on doorways and raised iron swords at windows.” Then Ms. Bruno chanted ” ‘Residue, residue, residue is in this house. It has to come out,” and “Lord of fire, lord flame, blessed be thy holy name…All negativity must be gone!’ ” The bell ringing is to break up the negativity, while the iron sword keeps evil spirits at bay, according to Bruno and Day.

Historically, Catholics and Hindus call upon priests to bless a new home before occupying it. Chinese believe in cleansing a home of any accumulated bad luck before the start of their New Year. Julie Belmont, a so-called “intuitive,” working in Orange County, California, explains that with foreclosures, ” ‘It’s not dealing with entities or ghosts…anymore…a lot of it is energy imprints from past discussions, arguments, money problems. All of that is absorbed by the house.’ “

But while Ms. Bruno and fellow Salem witch Lillee Allee perform house blessings for free because they “don’t want to live off people’s sadness,” others see it as a real business opportunity. “Austin, Texas-based feng shui consultant Logynn B. Northrip is teaming up with Scottsdale, Ariz., real-estate agent Jason Goldberg to offer a package of services to create better vibes in a home, either before sale or after purchase. The two met at a yoga retreat.” Sacramento, California realtor Tamara Dorris used feng shui to help sell a home that had sat on the market for more than a year. Having placed “a jade plant, believed to bring financial good luck, in a ‘prosperity corner’,” the home received 2 offers of purchase within two weeks.

Seems to me like St. Joseph is a more budget-friendly investment, and reeks less of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. But as far as I’m concerned, hey, whatever works!

never know…might try some of it the next go-round…hugmamma.