First published in the Casper Journal March 16, 2011, a week after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.
I know, I know. My hair is brown and my eyes are green. And, my ancestors come from Germany and France. Still, I consider myself Japanese.
I lived in Japan as a college student for a year and a half, 16 years ago. I ate their food. I spoke their language. I lived with Japanese natives. And, I came to love the people.
My heart stopped when I turned on the news Friday morning and heard about the massive earthquake and tsunami there.
I could picture it all: the manicured rice fields; the ornate homes; the small cars; the organized cities. I envisioned school children walking home from school, their crisp uniforms worn to perfection. I pictured the mailmen on their green motorbikes, delivering mail quickly and efficiently. I pictured the shopkeepers personally welcoming each guest into their stores; mothers, with a child on the front and the back of their bikes, pedaling the narrow streets to take a child to preschool. And I pictured the devastation of an earthquake, and a tsunami.
My heart broke.
When I first received my assignment to Japan, almost 15 years ago, the land seemed foreign and strange. Friends assured us that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. They were right. During my time there, I was never afraid. Even when I was out after dark, or sprained my ankle, or was alone on a train, I knew I was in good company. I did experience one large earthquake, but was unharmed.
There is something very dignified and kind about the Japanese people. The friends I made and the culture I learned have shaped my life since then. In fact, it was difficult to return to America after living in Japan. When our plane landed in San Francisco, everyone around me looked big, boisterous, pushy, and a bit rude. Americans tend to gobble their food down, instead of enjoying it bite by bite. Americans barge into homes, muddy shoes on their feet, as if carpet will last forever. Americans want everything big, and bigger; instead of being grateful for what we have.
Thankfully, some of the Japanese culture I learned now permeates my home and my family. We leave our shoes in the “genkan” (entryway). We often eat with chopsticks. My children are all relatively talented at Origami. And, we eat rice daily. Our large rice cooker has a permanent spot on the kitchen counter.
Once, when our favorite Botan Rice was on sale at the grocery store, I stocked up. When I arrived at the cash register, the cashier eyed my shopping cart full of rice.
“Do you own a restaurant?” She asked with raised eyebrows.
“Oh, no,” I responded. “I’m Japanese.”
“Uh,” she replied with a confused look, glancing at my eyes, my hair, and my skin. She silently checked me through the register. I giggled inside.
Seven years ago, my husband and I returned to Japan to attend the International Rotary Convention. Although it had been ten years since I had stayed there, the people were still as gracious and polite as I remembered them. And, the food was just as delicious.
We took the country train back through the small towns where I had lived. The terraced rice fields were just as green and neat as ever. It seemed that the same old grandmas, their heads covered in scarves, were bending to plant the seedlings. Bikes still crowded the train stations and the roads, although most people now had a cell phone to their ear.
We took a day and toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. After several hours inside of the museum, my heart was ready to burst for the terrible tragedies caused by the atomic bomb. As we exited the museum, a choir of school children—dressed in uniform—was singing a beautiful song on the patio. Their voices were clear and unified. It seemed they were singing victory; the victory of a broken people who had risen from the ashes.
And now, there are ashes to rise from, again. Ashes from a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
It’s been several days since the quake. Thankfully, I’ve made contact with friends and family members in Japan, and have found that they are safe. There are still others that I worry about.
However, I have no doubt about the resilience of the Japanese people. They came back strong after the Second World War. They will come back again—organized, polite and grateful for what they have. Their culture teaches them patience, hard work, and service. It will bring them through this tragedy. That’s the Japanese way. A way Americans might take note of.
Until they recover, my prayers are with them; prayers for my beloved people of Japan.
(When I wrote this article, ten years ago, I had no idea that I would now be living in Japan with my family.)