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...

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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. )

japan, an editorial opinion

As if reading my mind, the following editorial opinion “Sturdy Japanwas in today’sWall Street Journal. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirety.

No nation escapes unscathed from an earthquake of the magnitude that struck Japan yesterday. At least 1,000 people have died. For all that damage, it is remarkable how well this island nation of more than 126 million people has withstood the fifth largest earthquake since 1900. Registering a stunning 8.9, the earthquake near Sendai produced a 30-foot high tsunami that hurtled toward some 53 countries.

Despite these powerful forces, one cannot help but note how relatively well prepared the Japanese were to survive such an assault from mother Earth. Japan stands, literally, as a testament to how human planning and industrialized society can cope with natural disasters.

A country that experiences hundreds of subterranean vibrations annually, Japan has been earthquake-proofing its buildings since an 8.4 earthquake in 1891. Until 1965, Japan limited the height of buildings to a little over 100 feet, but with the pressure of urban populations, the height limit was lifted. Japan’s wood residential houses were vulnerable to a tsunami on the coast, but its tall buildings seem to have held up well against the quake.

Minatomirai, Yokohama Japan See where this pic...

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In 1993, the Yokohama Landmark Tower was completed at 971 feet tall, a remarkable height in a country prone to serious earthquakes. It was only possible to erect such a building if one had the skills and wealth to access the most sophisticated techniques of modeling and engineering.

In late 2007, the Japanese completed the world’s most sophisticated early warning system for earthquakes, which was credited Friday with signaling Tokyo’s residents–via TV, radio and cellphone–that a quake was coming. The warning system gives industrial, energy and transportation facilities time to shut down before a quake hits. The biggest concern as we went to press was the ability to cool the reactor cores at nuclear power plants that were shut down automatically as the earthquake hit. The U.S. is sending some coolant materials.

阪神淡路大震災(東急ハンズあたり)

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Japan now faces significant rebuilding, but less than could have been expected after enduring its strongest tremblor in 300 years. We’d now expect that similar warning systems would be developed and installed in the rest of the world’s quake-prone nations.

Contrast this preparation with poor Haiti or the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, which killed some 70,000 people. Haiti has the excuse of abject poverty caused by decades of misrule. China has wealth but a government answerable only to itself. Sometimes the hard phrase, invidious comparison, is apt. After its disastrous Kobe earthquake in 1995, Japan instituted a multitude of reforms.

Japan itself has experienced some bad press of late. Its economic growth is stagnant, and its inept political class has become an embarrassment to its great population of productive citizens. But make no mistake. Japan remains a great industrial power. Despite the destructive effects of yesterday’s quake, the self-protective benefits of Japan’s achievement as a modern nation was hard not to notice.

supports my theory that the japanese work hard to sustain themselves…through good times…and bad…hugmamma.

the japanese, a stalwart people

A bowl of miso soup

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My husband and I had dinner at Tokyo, a small Japanese restaurant. Some might call it a “hole in the wall.” Regular diners, like ourselves, use the phrase lovingly. In other words the restaurant’s appearance is nothing spectacular, but its food is “to die for,” and its prices are fair. My combination dinner of miso soup, salad with Japanese dressing, teriyaki salmon, California roll, brown rice and a peeled orange that was sweet and juicy, “hit the spot.” I love Japanese food, at least the westernized version of the more traditional fare.

California roll served in Shanghai, China. Pre...

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During dinner my husband asked if I’d thought about the next topic for my blog. I said “Yes, that I had.” The recent Tsunami in Japan had me thinking about its people. While I don’t know anyone who lives there, I’m well acquainted with their culture. Hawaii is a melting pot of ethnicities, Japanese being one of them. Historically they were enlisted to work the plantations, replacing the first wave of immigrants, the Chinese, who improved their lot, moving from laborers to small business owners.

Growing up among the Japanese in Maui, I saw them as a quiet, soft-spoken, hard-working people. Family and honor were important in their culture. They were leaders, for sure, but they led by example. Children knew what was expected of them, because they did as their parents did. And the adults seemed to do whatever was necessary to provide for themselves and their families, by simply doing. They grew their own produce, they fished, they opened small mom and pop grocery stores. From what I observed, the Japanese seemed a very self-sufficient people. Moreover, I never heard them complain. It seemed they felt anything was possible, if they just worked hard enough.

When learning of the devastating losses it has suffered in the wake of the Tsunami, I could only think that Japan will re-emerge strong once again, like the mythological phoenix which arose from its own ashes. It is not a nation that cries out in desperation. Instead its people will put their noses to the proverbial grindstone, and rebuild their country from the ground up, making it even better than before. If God ever imbued a people with the gift of everlasting hope, in my opinion it would have to be the Japanese.

for a country of hard-working people…hugs and prayers…hugmamma.

foreign country, home?

HGTV is one of my “go to” stations when I’m surfing the channels looking for somewhere to land. One of my favorite segments, which my husband also enjoys watching, is “House Hunters International.” Being “niele” (Hawaiian for “curious”, my family says I’m “nosey”) by nature, I want to see how other people live, especially in  foreign countries. What are their houses like? Do they reflect a totally different lifestyle, or one not unlike mine? What are prices like? Do they seem in line with what the homes offer in basics, as well as in amenities? I’ve seen HGTV shows filmed in cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Paris, Edinburgh and countries like Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Italy, England, Argentina, Costa Rica, and islands like Aruba, Jamaica, the Caymans.

Most of the locations HGTV visits seem to appeal to my exotic side. Of course viewing places I’ve not been as a traveler is like being in a candy shop, face pressed against glass cases, eyes bugging out over the contents. My latest refrain which seems ongoing is “We should retire there.” To which my husband’s reply is always “Yeah?” or “I don’t think so.” I’ve decided he has no exotic side, only a very practical one which keeps me fully grounded. If it weren’t for him, I’d have been airborne a zillion times, never landing for a breather. Of course I’m glad he never takes me seriously for then I’d have to “put my money where my mouth is.” And I’ve no “kala,” (Hawaiian for money, lots of it) to support a lifestyle of the “rich and famous.” Besides, we’re not of that class, being pretty simple in our wants and likes. I’d like a vacation home in Hawaii, and a Volkswagen bug, blue or yellow. See, pretty basic. Well, at least half my wants is…the Hawaiian home…with an ocean view.

While I’m caught up in the moment watching non-natives weighing the pros and cons of various houses in foreign locales, I’m amazed at their decision to live beyond their comfort zones. Some even retiring, lock, stock and barrel, to supposed final homes of their “golden years.” Besides needing a tremendously flexible attitude toward their adopted place of abode and its citizenry, these new residents must be prepared to live within the explicit, and implicit, laws of the land. They might find themselves adrift without a” life jacket” in a face-off with the ruling government where they’d taken up residence. Trying to cloak themselves in the American flag as U.S. citizens might be like moving a mountain, which might prove easier to do in the long-term.

Of note is the ongoing case of Amanda Knox, a University of Washington student who, while studying abroad for a semester in Luca, Italy was accused of murdering her British roommate. The rural town peopled by folk who have probably lived their entire lives in that village have little, if any, experience with foreign visitors except what is stereotypically represented. So it seems in Knox’s case being an American teenager may have prematurely cast her in the widely viewed role of “wild child.” Even I, sitting in the comfort and safety of my home in the U.S., can’t be absolutely certain if she is innocent or guilty. But while her case is on appeal and her parents wage an all-out-war, sacrificing much in time, energy and money, their daughter is serving out a 20+ year sentence.

Being a professed worrier, although I’m getting better, the rampant killings by drug cartels in Mexico City and other parts of Mexico, has me wondering about the safety of retirees who have moved south for the “good life.” In her attempts to assuage my concerns a friend, herself a regular visitor to Puerto Vallarta and whose friends’ family lives on the outskirts of the resort, assures me that Americans are safe. The resorts at which they are guests, are heavily guarded. I’ve also been told by the Mexican woman who works at the dry cleaner we frequent, that the sleepy village where she is from and where her family still resides, is untouched by the violence.

I am not as mystified about Europeans residing in countries other their own. It would be like my having moved from Hawaii to the east coast to New England to where I am now in the Pacific Northwest. The difference, of course, being that European countries are sovereignties. Furthermore the ability for Europeans to travel easily across borders, proposes a certain level of comfort. That ease and inherent comfort are not an intrinsic part of  moving from the U.S. to a country in Europe, Asia, or South America. And then there’s the language. Europeans tend to know more than their native tongue; we, on the other hand, rely heavily upon others knowing English.

It would seem that at least 2 categories of Americans make their homes abroad, those who take their identity with them insisting that their surroundings adjust; or those who are chameleons adjusting to whatever their environs require. Dear friends of ours, a gay married couple, recently bought a home in the Spanish countryside. Imagine my disbelief when my husband told me of their purchase?!?. “How could they just up and decide to move to Spain? Do they know anyone? Are they leaving for good?” But then I let the news sink in. I thought of the 2 men, their effervescent personalities, their annual social gatherings, their love of travel to places like Vietnam and the Galapagos Isles, and their talent for bringing friends together as family. Such reflection left me with no residual qualms, about these 2 fabulous men taking up residence in a foreign country. Perhaps,… I’m even a little envious of their hutzpah.

Having been raised on Maui, I often blame my islander roots as reason for not traveling farther afield with more frequency, or seriously contemplating a permanent home abroad. I use the same excuse for choosing to drive through residential neighborhoods or back roads, rather than speeding down freeways at 60 miles an hour trying to keep up with everyonelse. Call it an island mentality or fear of the unknown, I will never be Marco Polo or Magellan. Perhaps because of my dysfunctional childhood, I find that being with my husband and daughter is more important to me than traveling the globe in search of what I’m already blessed with here at home. But while my search is complete my daughter is confident she’d be fine working, and living, in Europe, if that’s where her career took her. And she goes with our blessing to live the life she envisions for herself, here or abroad. That won’t prohibit me from continuing to give advice, however, that she “drive carefully and be safe.”

is it youth that gives us wings, which when “clipped” in older age keeps some of us closer to the nest?…hugmamma.