[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.