Japan, One Week Later ♥
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One week ago, the lives of so many people changed forever. My days have all seemed to blend together this past week. I still can’t believe what has happened and what is still taking place. As the days continue to move on since last Friday’s horrific events, those of us not directly in the Tohoku Region have begun to slip back into pockets or normalcy. This is good for several reasons. It helps to bolster the low morale of the country and offers us a small reprieve from the grim news we are being inundated with.
After a week of extreme fear, sadness and chaotic disruption, I was eager to return to Karumai Sho Gakkou, anxious to see the people I hold so dear, safe and sound. I was at this school when the earthquake and tsunami hit. Today was my first day back since we all huddled together, taking refuge from the earthquake and aftershocks, calming the children crying from tsunami sirens.
Taking comfort in the familiar and stable, seeing first hand how fortunate I am would certainly bring welcome relief to my exhaustion. However, a tangible tension has coiled itself into Japan and no matter where one goes, be it the office or the convenience store, the atmosphere feels a bit thick.
Rather than lively morning greetings, upon entering the teacher’s room I heard low, hurried voices and professional keigo of NHK News. The Fukushima Nuclear Plant worries us all. (As a note, I believe that I am not in any danger of radiation in my location.) The morning staff meeting was filled with points of concern regarding the earthquake and tsunami. Several teachers were absent and I tried to remember exactly where everyone’s hometown is. Very few of the people I work with are Hokkaido natives, indeed most are from the Tohoku Region. To say the feeling is solemn would be an understatement.
My first class of the day was emotional for two reasons. First, it was my last day with my beloved sixth graders. The end of the Japanese school year is upon us and they will graduate and transition into junior high school at the end of the week. This class of jokers and comedians has always been enamored with me (not all classes are!) and I assure you the admiration is reciprocated. Saying goodbye is never easy but to say it at a time when there is an even greater underlying grief merely exacerbates the pain.
Before the chime rang, the home room teacher pulled me aside and told me that one of my favorite and brightest students, Yuki, had lost his grandparents in the tsunami. His usual smiling, round face was pale and puffed up. He had obviously been crying for days. Having to watch him endure my trivial class for those forty-five minutes took every ounce of strength from me. I was suddenly not happy to be back at school.
Later on, in between classes, the sweet oba-san that serves us drinks quietly shuffled her way up to me. The resilient and calm Japanese demeanor that I am so accustomed to seeing, shattered in an instant when she boldly grabbed my hand, kissed it, and started tearfully whispering “arigatou gozaimasu, hontou ni, arigatou gozaimasu!” I lurched in surprise and stammered inquiries about why she was thanking me. “Your President Obama, he has sent us ships and soldiers to help. My daughter is missing in Iwate. Thank you so much for helping us. You should be very proud to be American today. Thank you, thank you.”
And I broke.
Weeping has suddenly become a shared experience in this reserved but deeply sensitive country. How do you prepare yourself for such raw emotion? How do you prepare yourself for such words and such grief? How can I possibly receive words of thanks?! This goes beyond politics and patriotism. We’re human. We need to help each other, weep with each other. We need to give freely of ourselves to relieve the crushing weight upon the shoulders of the Japanese people.
These are only two small glimpses into how my days have been. I can’t bring myself to recount them all. I have been numb, walking in a daze, trying to get by as my heart thuds in fear and sadness.
I would beg of you, please do what you can, whatever you can and all that you can to help Japan. You have no idea how much it means to those who are desperately searching for a reason to keep living and hoping. “Thank you so much for helping us.”