An RM Reflects

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Years ago I had a friend, Andrew Christensen, that served his mission about the same time I did, in Sendai, Japan. Actually, I have a few friends that served in that country–and as I served in South Korea, there were, in later years, occasional expressions of joking rivalry between us. I’d forgotten about most of that, as I’ve forgotten, or at least seriously reconsidered, much of my own mission experience. Andrew, thankfully, has not–or at least, the tragedy in Japan, which hit hard the mission in which he served, and particularly devastated a community he knew and loved (the city of Natori, shown being wiped out by the tsunami to the left), has brought back all sorts of memories. He has posted some of them, and has kindly given me permission to share them. Perhaps his thoughtful, heartfelt words will help others to gave months and years of their lives serving the people of this (to us) distant land to share their own reflections as well. Anyway, here is what he wrote.

I lived in or near Sendai three times during the roughly two years I spent in Japan in the early 1990’s. Although the second and third times I lived there I was literally in Sendai itself, my mind keeps going back to where I lived during the first of those three occasions, as I watch and try to process what’s happened–and is still happening–over there since the earthquake. I keep going back to Natori.

Natori is a small town just a little south of Sendai itself, maybe eight miles. There’s a small, central commercial district (a main street, really), a fair amount of mild, mini “suburbia”-type neighborhoods, and then “tambo”….rice fields. It’s adjacent to the ocean. It’s where the now flooded-out Sendai airport is. As best I can tell, large areas in or around Natori have been hammered–literally scrubbed, submerged, blanketed with huge debris and chewed up–by the tsunami. I lived there for about two months during the spring of 1991. I had spent the first two months of my time in Japan in a much larger town, further north, and I remember those first months as (very) cold, gray, shocking, and overwhelming. Miserable and oppressive. Natori, by contrast, was peaceful, spring-like, sunny and comfortable. Beautiful and calm.

As the memories have poured back to me over the past two or three days, I’ve been surprised at how many faces, places and experiences I recall from that place, that I haven’t thought about for a long, long time. Other parts of my overall time in Japan have assumed the forefront of my most common recollections. But Natori has rested quietly in the background, rarely asserting itself. Natori served its purpose at the time–it allowed me and Japan to re-approach each other a little more slowly than my initial immersion had permitted. Allowed me to thaw a bit. Allowed me to get used to the idea of being there and muscle up to the idea of continuing to be there. Allowed me to pedal around, as if I were there, before I really was. Before I could really speak the language. Before I had any momentum for making much of the experience. It took me a day or so to realize, this past week, that part of what disturbed me so much about the tsunami footage was that this terrible tragedy was devastating a place that had played that quiet but crucial transitional role in a key chapter of my life. The place and its people had basically nurtured me, buoyed me up — so it has been a punch to the gut to think of–to watch–all that has happened there, now, not just to “random” people on the other side of the globe, but actually to those particular people, in that particular place, who just by being genuine, solid, decent, kind and grounded, gave me a steadying hand when I needed one.

Natori didn’t seem wealthy, or poor, and for that matter I didn’t see the world in those terms then – though we certainly saw everything from humble, spartan apartments to fine homes. It was just….Japan. Steady and rhythmic. Functional. It’s the part of my Japan experience that is most like the backdrop of a Hayao Miyazaki film–think Totoro. Authentic and natural. Rice fields below, bullet train above. Some hills, some woods. Homes, apartments, shops, cars, bikes, restaurants, grocery stores. We pedaled around, over and through all of that, the day-to-day scenery of it. But that’s not what I remember, when I think back. All that is just the backdrop. What I remember with real feeling, is the people. Not a single name. But dozens of moments, smiles, gestures….timelessly reverent demeanors.

I’ve been searching my memory, hoping to remember some specific incident that sums the place up. But there doesn’t seem to be one. Most of the snippets of memory are too bare of plot or detail to convey anything meaningful to someone who didn’t live them. There was the soft-spoken man with the nice house in the countryside with the vegetable garden in front. The young, quiet guy who worked at the video arcade. There was the time a friend I was with rode his bike into a six foot gully when he missed the turn of our path in the dark, and the stunned help we received from the occupants of the house nearby when I ran to their door stammering all I could come up with: “Tomodachi–okii mondai!” (“Friend–Big problem!”). There was the elderly man, all of about four feet tall and all smiles, with the bamboo grove behind his house. The kind Eikaiwa (English Conversation Class) hostess who would provide us dinner when we arrived to teach in Iwanuma, a little south. The senior citizens we sang and laughed with in Watari, a little further south. The generous guy who treated us to some elaborate sushi. The people who warmly dismissed the issue when I put my hand through their paper wall when I leaned to put my shoes back on when leaving their house after dinner (rookie mistake). The energetic teenagers we taught in Natori itself. The odd but good-natured guy who claimed he’d hung out with Eric Clapton (I think) on his vacation to Jamaica. The serious kid in the pilot training program based out of the Sendai airport. The grateful kid who borrowed a suitcase from me to use on a trip to Saipan. The time we went to MOS Burger (a McDonald’s-like chain), and had a friendly discussion with the store manager, seemingly excited to have foreigners in his restaurant, to the effect that “MOS” might stand for “Mountain, Ocean, Sunrise” as far as the company’s official view was concerned, but to us it would forever sound like fungus. A trip to the beach – passing a large ship that was sitting, dry, in an empty field for some reason, and then finding pencil-drawn, manga-style graffiti sketched on the gigantic cement asterisks piled high along the sand. The old people playing bocce ball–or, that’s what I think it was; if I knew differently at the time, it has escaped me–in the parks, with elaborate wrist computers for scorekeeping. My first and only experience with karaoke. Bags of rice for sale in vending machines. Riding our bikes in the middle of practically nowhere and coming across a small group of maybe ten or fifteen people solemnly marching, with an anti-nuclear message–this was the only public demonstration of any kind I ever saw in Japan. The elderly man we brought lunch to–kaarage chicken bento–who laughed and hemmed and hawed and then, perfectly and just so, apologized that he couldn’t eat the chicken because he had no teeth, then grinned ear-to-ear to prove it….this all being a little nuance we had missed before. Another night, eating a bento in a park, sitting on the bench or in the grass of a ballfield, and the Japanese guy I was working with saying, “Your mom would be so sad to see you sitting here eating takeout dinner in a park at night like this.” And I thought, no, I get the sentiment of it, but, no, not really….this is exactly where she wants me. With all of you.

But chief among all the memories are two kids and a beetle. If you set me down in front of my old apartment and gave me a bike, I’d like to believe I could still find the way to their house, even though it was a fair ways west and south of the Natori train station. It was in the countryside, amidst farmland. I don’t remember what they grew there, or if they even actually did grow anything themselves, or just lived adjacent to the fields… rice fields most likely, of course–I seem to recall the father owned or ran a delivery service for produce for restaurants. The family had a little boy and a little girl. Under ten years old I think. We visited them a couple times, and I remember sitting on the tatami in their living room, probably drinking cold mugicha (a thin roasted barley tea, which I definitely hadn’t developed a taste for yet and never really did, though it was omnipresent and manners dictated that we courteously partake, since the content wasn’t forbidden and the social gesture was important). I vaguely remember the mother being a really gracious hostess. I mostly remember the pet rhinoceros beetle. Kabutomushi. It was huge, it acted smart–it seemed as smart as or smarter than a mouse, as the young boy teased it with a string or small stick. And it could fly. And it did. Up to the ceiling. The kids loved it. They loved my startled and fascinated reaction to it. I felt at home.

There’s no arc to the story of our visits with that family, or really any more to the “story” than that. Just a little family with a nice house in the Japanese countryside near the ocean. Two kids. Cold roasted barley tea. A smart beetle. And a 19-year old from a few thousand miles away, trying to catch his breath and figure out who on earth he was, whether he was in control of his life or not and, if so, to what end. Natori seemed eternal and constant. A good place to get your footing. Steady. Solid. Sound. Decent, well-grounded people going about their mindful lives earnestly, in the moment, with a quiet confidence and, of course, that spectacular Japanese reverence for self and others that defines the form and grammar of their words and actions. That meant everything to me then, so much so that, ironically I’ve rarely even thought about it, since, and I didn’t even consciously realize some of this until now.

And so I don’t know whether to cringe and hate knowing that those good people in that special place have been dealt such a bitter challenge, or to relax and rest, with gravity but at ease, in the knowledge that those good people are perhaps uncommonly suited to weather this challenge with a firm stride, nurtured through generations. Either way, my thoughts are with them.


  1. Andrew and Russell, thanks for sharing these memories. The whole thing leaves me pretty speechless.

  2. Beautiful, and sad. I’ve never been to Natori, but I spent a summer in Kyoto. Selfishly, I am glad that the specific place that gave me some of the best months of my life remains unscathed, but I am so heartbroken for the rest.

  3. I served my mission in Hokkaido – and part of it in Hakodate. This disaster has been hard for me to process, and I really appreciate this post. It’s hard for me to be reading in a public place right now and not let the tears flow freely.

  4. Patricia Lahtinen says:

    What a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing your memories. What great heartache we feel, we who have lived in and loved Japan and its people.

  5. Mommie Dearest says:

    Reading this was worth procrastinating my work. Thanks.

  6. When I don’t have words to express my feelings about this terrible set of circumstances for the Japanese people, I am humbled by those who do so with such eloquence. Thank you.

    At the temple last night, I added to the prayer lists, The Citizens of Japan.

  7. This brought back a lot of memories. Thank you for sharing.

  8. lindberg says:

    Thank you for sharing. Beautiful thoughts, beautiful memories.

    I spent half my mission in a fishing port town in Shizuoka — not quite as rural as Natori seems to be, but very laid-back and countrified compared with Tokyo. I have many memories that are much like those shared in the OP.

    For a kid from Idaho, it was my first experience being near the ocean. I was fascinated with the docks, the boats, the salty fish smell that was always present in the background. And I was amazed at the endless heaps of tetrapods (“asterisks”, I love your term!), the 10-foot thick concrete sea walls with huge steel gates to seal off the town from tsunamis, the warning signs and public address system that was tested daily. These folks knew the havoc the sea could wreak, and were vigilant in preparing for the worst.

    It was wrenching, watching video from the recent disaster, seeing the sea pour over similar walls and tear through similar towns, wielding similar fishing boats as battering rams through similar towns.

    It was particularly poignant for me as I was able to go back to visit in January, with a weekend spent reconnecting with friends there in Shizuoka. It’s easy to imagine the Tohoku disaster happening there — and at the same time, unimaginable.

    Thank you again for sharing.

  9. Chad Too says:

    @lindberg: Which city?
    @OP: Change the name of the town and slightly adjust the stories and this could easily have been my story. I started in Numazu (about 300 miles south of Natori, on Suruga Bay) and only got to be there for two months before I transferred up into the concrete world of Tokyo. Japan was so overwhelming at first that I really couldn’t appreciate living in a small coastal village (“small” is a debatable term as the district I served in was about 400,000 people, a quaint hamlet by Tokyo-area standards) It wasn’t until I transferred back down to the country (Shimizu) for my last area that I really came to appreciate the gift of living outside the megalopolii.
    …and what I consider perhaps the greatest gift the Lord has ever given me outside my wife and children; I began and ended my mission with a glorious view of Mount Fuji. I tear up just thinking about it.

    My people may be Shizuoka rather than Miyagi people… but the love, appreciation, and concern are the same.

  10. Chad Too says:

    …oh, and on a recent trip back to Japan (with my 14-year-old son alongside) We toured the Hakodate area, and Hachinohe, and stayed in Sendai one night. It makes the tragedy that much more real to me. God Bless these good people.

  11. ExMoHoMoDon says:

    I was never in Sendai or the Tohoku region–never went north of Nikko in Tochigi Ken, but I am devastated by this catastrophe. (Japan Mission 1971-72) If there is any positive thing to come out of this horror, the Japanese will find it. As anyone knows who was a missionary in Japan–the Japanese are capable, resilient, resourceful and industrious.

  12. #9 Chad Too

    I was in Yaizu. I spent the first six months in Tokyo, which I totally loved, but it set me up to really appreciate how wonderful the people out in “the country” are. Yaizu’s population is about 120,000, so it really did feel like a villiage after the daitokai.

    And I loved seeing Fujisan as well. On a good clear day I loved going out to the harbor where we could see around the local mountains to see Fuji rising majestically above the green of Nihondaira, with Shizuoka and the bay in the foreground. Fabulous.

  13. Watching the devastation videos of Japan, I’m forced to think of a disaster like this happening where I spent most of my mission, and I wonder if it’s only a matter of time until we see Balboa peninsula and Balboa and Lido Islands sink beneath the waves. The video of the stricken nuklear plant in Fukushima could just as easily be San Onofre.

    I’m very sad for the Japanese people and the terrible destruction, and I keep wondering if there’s something more we can do to prepare for this happening elsewhere. Watching the videos, though, it seems unlikely that any preparations could make much of a difference in the face of that destructive force.

  14. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I served in the Japan and Japan East missions from Feb 69 to Feb 71. The East mission was split off in March 70 and included the north island of Hokkaido and all of the Tohoku (“east-north”) region hit by the tsunami. I was district leader for six months in Koriyama about 35 miles west of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant about the same time it was going online 40 yrs ago. Ten years later I was in Japan with the Air Force and visited the Koriyama branch with my wife and three kids.
    As it happens, my 82 yr old mother has been visiting her sister in Nagoya since the end of February and will be returning to Utah in a week. She and my relatives are safe, but thousands who look just like them, the people I lived with and taught and spoke Japanese with and prayed with are now lost or suffering. It is the Japanese way to bear up under all of the loss, to keep plugging away, even though they feel all of it inside. They feel above all a sense of duty to others above self. That sense of duty has made the Japanese capable of their worst as well as their most noble deeds over the last century. It has much in common with the character that has enabled the Jews to survive the last two millennia, and the character that sets apart the Latter-day Saints. We all survive and overcome through a dedication to our larger family.
    The 7000 miles that separates us from Sendai is a much smaller distance in the human relationships that connect us. Over the next weeks and months, we will learn that all of us are at most only 2 or 3 degrees of separation from someone who directly experienced this trial. Let us keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

  15. While I can not say I have been to Japan, I feel for the people there.
    I hope they are able to rebuild soon, and have deep admiration for those working in nuclear environments.

%d bloggers like this: