I took Japan for granted in that I knew it would always be there – a safe, clean if somewhat expensive refuge where everyone was happy, even if they weren’t and where I could always go if for some reason the United States turned to dust or if my relatives in Taiwan were bothering me to much. Isn’t that strange? To think of a place like that? Taiwan is convenient on the whole, but most of the things I love about Taiwan are actually things I love about Taipei. But in Japan, cleanliness, politeness, promptness, efficiency – these are national traits that don’t waver from city to city. I spent the week in Niseko, a tiny ski-village in Hokkaido so far removed from the bustling pace of Japan’s mega cities that had I kept the computers and TV off, I would not have heard about the earthquake until I returned to Taipei.
Yet even in Niseko, a truly international ski-destination swamped by Australians and Singaporeans and Honkys, there was never a moment when I thought, “Where am I?” The calm efficiency with which the snow was kept at bay by clean, polished looking tractors and the cheery voices and bright faces of the young seasonal workers that took our food and drink orders – every one and everything bore the distinct Japanese touch. Normally, skiing is the fun part and everything else is work. Finding a parking spot, walking to the slopes, getting off and on the lifts, and eating cold sandwiches in the car because the food on the slopes was bound to be tasteless and overpriced… but in Japan, the skiing was more work than anything else. It snowed heavily for three straight days, one of which I sat out and stayed in – and while I dreaded gearing up and going up the mountain, there was great comfort in knowing that I had beautifully designed Japanese lodging to come home to and that even if I should step outside its warmth, a few more steps would take me somewhere with the same Japanese hospitality.
Cleanliness. Politeness. Promptness. Efficiency. Those are the things I took for granted in and of Japan, and thus to see the tsunami come in and disrupt everything, destroying houses, cars, boats, fields (as though food prices were not astronomical enough in Japan), and most terrifyingly, families… churning everything and everyone into one, thick, dark Devil stew. Sendai, Natori, Fukushima, Onagawa …a natural disaster can destroy lives and homes and devastate landscapes, but most insidiously it can kill the idea of a place. Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans before I had a chance to see it and almost immediately I thought selfishly, “Now I’ll never see it.” The same thing happened with the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Bali, Phuket – exotic paradises I had once dreamed of vacationing to had been washed away in a blink of an eye. In both instances I stood in front of the TV screen watching the water crash into the land and its people, devouring everything in its path and leaving behind nothing but fragments. But at some point the news stations move on. People move on. They don’t always stop crying, but they bend down to pick up the pieces, and they get up again. And slowly, you see people heading back there not only to vacation, but to live. New Orleans is being rebuilt, perhaps more solidly than before, and Bali and Phuket are once again thriving vacation spots.
Now I watch the Japanese people on the news, watch them calmly line up for clean water and food and gas. Watch them line up for buses and trains to go to work even as their country burns and crumbles around them. Watch them anxiously but quietly search message boards for names of friends, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers; watch their faces fall if no name is found. I watch them say “please” and “thank you” and say “Wonderful, it’s wonderful to have found you,” when they stand amidst rubble and find a friend.
I watch in awe and realize that while for some, the idea of a place is attached to its materials – buildings, technology, restaurants – nothing can kill a people’s idea of themselves. Even in crisis, the Japanese maintain order and efficiency. No fighting or pillaging, no finger pointing or dramatic wailing – though all of these would be completely understandable – only a heartbreaking silence and strangely, an indescribable acceptance – as though tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, are all an expected part of life. On the news I heard a woman say, “I watched my husband wash away. I touched his hand briefly. I hung on to the roof of our house. I don’t know if I am lucky or unlucky.” An elderly man with a round face bit his lip and held back tears, “My home is gone. Gone. But I am here, so I suppose I am lucky.” And a woman, a mother among thousands of mothers now separated from their children, posted a handwritten note to her daughter on one of many message boards. “I hope my daughter will see my message,” she said, twisting her hands, “I don’t know where she is. But I hope.” And everyone, collectively: “We must go on.”
Cleanliness, politeness, promptness, efficiency – all maintained despite the crisis, to the best of their ability. And the most admirable of all, the cornerstone of Japanese identity from which all other traits spring: solidarity. From the very beginning the most important message came from the Prime Minister, from the news anchors, and from the scientists struggling to prevent nuclear meltdown: “Stay calm.” The second most important message: “Help each other.” Solidarity is what defines the Japanese people and solidarity will enable them to rebound and rebuild with efficiency that will astound the world. So I correct myself: I take Japan for granted because of the solidarity of its citizens. My idea of Japan remains whole.
“How much can come and much can go, and yet abide the world.”
– Emily Dickinson