Disaster Relief, Family History, Japan


Overnight there was an 8.9 earthquake in Japan, followed by devastating tsunamis.

LP has tears in her eyes about Japan. It’s such an odd thing, to have had a grandmother in love with Japan and now a daughter who is the same way. And as I think about it, how amazing was it that my grandmother, by the late 1950s, was loving Japan enough to go there, after her husband and son had been at war against Japan only 15 years earlier?

Uncomfortably, I know she went there thinking she was going to save the Japanese by making them Christian.

And maybe she did “make” a few Christians, but mostly she made friends, and they would be devoted to each other for the rest of her life. For my family, it meant many visitors from Japan, and three special young women who came to live with us, one after the other. I remember Hideko as gentle, kind, sweet. She taught me to play the piano. Takae was prettier, less approachable. Yoko was just fun. She was the youngest. She was more help around the house! It’s a class thing, my mother said. Upper class girls had a Jane Austen life; middle class girls had to learn to do actual useful things.

My heart is full of Hideko, the one who kept in touch with us over the years, and her husband and her daughters and her beautiful grandchildren. I’m thinking of Takae, and of Yoko, more ephemeral in our lives. I wonder if they are afraid, if they are safe, if they have the resources to protect themselves. They must all be in their 60s now, retirement age nearly, if they retire there when we do. Will Hideko’s husband–Nobuo, I finally thought of his name–be involved in recovery efforts via YMCA? Are they offering shelter to others?

They are on my mind this morning. I’m looking at horrifying pictures of the tsunami waves, fiery debris flowing across farmland like a scene out of SimCity, boats and cars being thrown around like Matchbox toys in a bathtub. 
8.9 would be the fifth most severe earthquake since they started keeping records in 1900. 

The first family quarrel I ever knew anything about was the one between my mother and everyone on her side of the family about whether my grandmother should make a final trip to Japan. I was about 18. Grandma G had the trip planned, and then she had a car accident, and her son, my Uncle Walter, put his foot down, saying there was no way she could go on that trip. He was worried she would have another small stroke, or even die, while she was in Japan.

It never occurred to me at the time that he might have his own reasons for hating Japan, for hating the place his mother loved. And I may be reading in something that was not there.

My mother wanted to let her mother go. She could travel through airports in a wheelchair. The host family had already built a ramp to make life easier for her (or did they do that after the accident? maybe). They were prepared to care for her.

With the cold-bloodedness of youth, I said, “What does it matter if she dies there? She’d be happy about it! It’s not like they can’t fly her body home.” And my mother apparently agreed. And maybe hearing my young ruthlessness helped her to stand up to her brother on her mother’s behalf. I don’t know.

It’s a scary world. Anything can happen. This morning, or rather tonight in Japan, people are trying to figure out where their loved ones are, feeling considerably more sentimental about the whereabouts of bodies than I did all those years ago. I’m a mom now myself, inclined to nervous insanity where my loved ones are concerned, but I hope I’ve raised children who would support me in pursuing my happiness even if I were so old it shouldn’t seem like it would matter anymore.

My grandmother was 80 when she made that final trip to Japan. Oh, and she lived to be 86, so it didn’t kill her. It was a happy, happy time for her. In pictures from the trip she looks positively gleeful at being back in the country and among the friends she came to adore. In the end, the friends in Japan saved her by giving a middle-aged widow renewed purpose and a sense of joy and connection that extended over oceans and years to a somewhat bossy elderly lady in a wheelchair who had to get back there one more time to feel complete.

I’ve never been there, but my heart is in Japan today.

6 thoughts on “Japan”

  1. Natural disasters are so heart rending. Reading your family history with Japan, I think you might like Laura Hillenbrand's book Unbroken. It's not an easy read….sometimes I wanted to close my eyes while reading it. But it's very thought provoking.

  2. came across this essay shortly after leaving my first comment.Interesting take on Jesus's words: "the poor you will always have with you…"

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