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

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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

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“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

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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...

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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.”

twice in one lifetime, memories of hiroshima

 

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

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Weighing heavily upon the minds of elderly Japanese are memories of that infamous day when the atom bomb was dropped on their country, in the hopes of bringing an end to World War II. Success in achieving that goal, brought agony beyond words for countless Japanese. 

Today’s Wall Street Journal articleHiroshima‘s Legacy Heightens Fears” by Mariko Sanchanta makes the case for one who has now known the unbelievable devastation of his country, not once but twice.

Mikiso Iwasa was 16 years old when the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. He was in the backyard of his house, a little less than a mile away from ground zero. He was smashed onto the ground by the force of the bomb.

Mr. Iwasa escaped, but the effects of radiation caught up with him later. He suffered from skin cancer twice as well as prostate cancer. He lost his hair. His nose and gums bled. He developed rashes all over his body.

Victim of Atomic Bomb 003

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For the only country ever to have experienced the atomic bomb and the horrific effects of concentrated radiation exposure, the nuclear crisis escalating in Japan has had a crippling effect on the nation’s collective psyche. 

Panic and confusion swept through Japan on Tuesday after a fresh explosion at one reactor and a fire at another at a damaged plant in Fukushima.

In Tokyo, 150 miles away, people lined up waiting for bullet train tickets to Osaka, Kyoto, Kyushu–anywhere to get as far away as possible from the northeastern coast of Japan.

The crisis comes on the heels of last year’s 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in which the U.S.–in a poignant move–for the first time sent a representative to attend the annual memorial.

In a country famed for stoicism, there is a quiet, mounting sense of anger toward Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the nuclear-power plant. Mr. Iwasa, now 82 years old, accuses the government of playing down the risks. “They’re saying there was a leakage, but that it won’t affect the human body. They’re just fooling us.”

Even for a generation that didn’t experience World War II–two-thirds of the country’s people were born after 1945–Tuesday’s events were enough to send young people scurrying for cover. Reina Kudo, 19, a college student in Tokyo, said her parents have been imploring her to come home to Kansai. “Now I really want to go home,” said Ms. Kudo, at bustling Tokyo station

Japan’s confidence had already been on a decline during a decade of economic malaise. More recent blows have exacerbated this sense of despair: China this year eclipsed Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy; political infighting has resulted in five prime ministers in as many years; a record proportion of college graduates can’t find full-time jobs.

The devastation from the earthquake and the tsunami, and rising nuclear fears are now deepening the gloom as businesses close plants, foreign nationals leave and rescue efforts have only just begun in earnest.

Hiroshima in ruins, October 1945, two months a...

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Despite the latest setbacks, some say the Japanese will persevere, as always. This catastrophe is “showing the resilience of the Japanese people,” says Jon Tanaka, a real-estate investor in Japan. “This is not so palpable to the outside world until you see it.” 

I cannot imagine another people, except maybe the Israelis, more resigned to their fate and yet never relinquishing the hope that they will overcome. The only part of the Japanese culturethat gives me pause is their code of honor. In the days of the Samurai, dying to “save face” was a given. I hope the traditional practice of “hara kiri” is left to the history books, and the movies, and tales handed down from one generation to the next. Except for that ancient commitment to suicide “if all else fails,” I feel a kinship with the Japanese in many ways.  

hoping the “other shoe doesn’t drop”…hugmamma.

(note: for results from a Japanese study about the practice of hara-kiri in contemporary society, visit http://www.nci.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20427155. )