One thing that can be said with certainty about Sendai since its 2011 disaster, rebuilding has been constant. Consequently, nothing much has stayed the same. All this reconstruction, unfortunately, means nature is done away with as deliberately and rapidly as possible. What were once lush gardens are now parking lots or cement driveways. Not a tree or a shrub in sight. Apartment buildings, one after another, are clogging every inch of land, without, it seems, any thought of enough people to fill them. I find this depressing to say the least. So, I treasure all the more my little haven of earth with its minuscule garden and lone tree, with a backdrop of cedar trees and edge of sky.
The other day I headed back to my old neighborhood, wondering if the bike shop I used to go to would still be there. To my amazement it was. Suzuki San, same but older, now 78, was flexibly squatting next to a motorbike changing a tire.
“Well, well, look who’s here. Come on in,” he greeted me. His wife appeared from around the corner. “Sit down. Tell us how you are,” she said.
“Here’s the bill, but I won’t charge you tax since we’re friends.” Business as usual. Business with heart.
Mr. Suzuki has been at his shop for fifty years. “I plan on being here for a while longer. Until I am eighty at least,” he says with a proud smile. He is so healthy, friendly, and professional, I hope he will be there much longer, even as the world around him transforms into parking lots and apartments with neighbors hardly saying hello to one another.
Some wandering thoughts today. Evil and karma, so much to consider in these days of upheaval and uncertainty.
What happens on a Cosmic level to a person who has done great harm to others? Is the response tit-for-tat? “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Is karma-as-revenge part of a divine plan, or is it human, providing a bullying sense of fairness and justice?
And in reverse, “When bad things happen to good people.” Why isn’t good always and immediately rewarded with good?
What if karma, if it does indeed emerge out of Cosmic law, and not human desire, had a different, less direct method of operating? What if we came to believe that karma’s purpose is neither to reward nor to punish, but rather to teach, to uplift individuals and humanity at large?
What if a Hitler, for example, or any other infamously destructive character, were reborn not into a life of punishment, but one of profound love and disciplined compassion? What if his future family were role models of fairness, consideration of others, kindness and dignity? What if life after life he was reborn into circumstances that offered understanding, guidance, and opportunities for greater self-awareness and compassionate sensitivity towards others?
If this “Hitler” were able to transform, thanks to lifetimes of loving direction and self-determination, might that not provide karmic balance? Could the horrific evil he did eventually pierce his heart and psyche, not through punishment, but rather through enlightenment and acute awareness of the suffering of others? Could this deeply felt connection to humanity open his heart wide enough so that he, too, might experience what he had, in his ignorance, inflicted upon others? Might that severing inner pain be a profoundly wise method of karmic compensation for the unspeakably destructive deeds of his past?
In other words, could a Hitler eventually evolve to become a Thich Nhat Hanh, a Dalai Lama, a Buddha, a Christ? — Through infinite patience and guidance, through changed circumstances and his own free will.
Yet, could humanity tolerate such embracing, loving ways of dealing with evil? Are we ready for that brave step to an entirely different level of understanding and behavior: a karma of compassion and learning under all circumstances. How would society change if we believed and acted so?
These thoughts come after a trip visiting several sacred places in Japan. These havens are pools of peace and stillness amid the loud bustle of contemporary life. In them there is a sense of eternal understanding, guidance, and patience. Maybe they are symbolic of the way karma ceaselessly invites us to learn and to grow towards greater inner and outer Light.
PS. In rereading this letter, I realize how simplistic these thoughts are. They barely touch the nuanced, complex, and liberating dynamic that karma promises.
Kazuki Obata is 24 and is doing something remarkable. He is a rather shy young man, and when he was in high school, he often felt overwhelmed. He also experienced bullying and ostracism from classmates. Unlike American kids who, according to recent news, often take out their frustrations through violence on others, Kazuki followed his culture’s pattern of turning inward and shutting down. He refused to go to school, closed himself in his room, and wallowed in his confusion and lack of direction. So many youngsters do this in Japan that there is a name for it: hiki-komori.
A friend’s daughter is going through this, too. Her counselor told her parents to leave their child alone until she herself became ready to come out of her shell. No guidance, no demands, no expectations. Just leave her alone “until she is ready to emerge”. Sadly, because of lack of attendance, this young woman failed every class in high school and was not able to graduate. She is still unapproachable and the parents are still waiting for her “readiness”.
Who knows what caused Kazuki to break out of his shell? But emerge he did. And what he has done since then is remarkable. “I suffered so much,” he reflects, “and I don’t want others to be as lonely and confused as I was. That’s why I started this NPO called Kids’ Door.”
This group offers a safe space for school-resisting youngsters to get together and share their problems, their thoughts, and their struggles. It allows them to know they are not alone, that there are many others all over the country suffering as they are. This NPO does not pretend to answer all problems or even to get kids back into school. But it does promise a place of reassurance and community for those lacking support elsewhere.
A friend of mine volunteers to help these youngsters. And today she and I went to a special event organized by five very impressive high school aged kids.
Today’s program was beautifully organized. After very brief self-introductions, we were divided into small groups and directed in playing a guessing game. That was to melt barriers of shyness. Then things became a bit more serious. Again, in groups of three, we were asked to brainstorm ideas on how people learn. In my trio, no one even mentioned formal schooling.
Break time, good for chatting causally. Then re-introducing ourselves, this time in more detail. The response was incredible. Usually Japanese are extremely private and seldom talk about themselves. But in this now-safe environment, floodgates opened. People poured out their stories. Kids talked about being bullied or verbally abused by teachers. Parents, some almost on the verge of tears, expressed their worries and lack of direction in how to help the beloved children. Everyone respectfully listened or nodded in understanding. Group bonds were growing deeper.
The next task was to discuss in small groups education in the past and now. Happily, I learned there is a school new in Sendai, but with branches all over the country. It is called the En School. No one could tell me what En stood for, but the school itself is a very admirable attempt to help kids that are victims of their school experiences and overwhelming fears. It also opens its doors to youngsters who simply find no meaning in a regular education, or who are sports pros and cannot attend school regularly because of frequently going to tournaments.
Indeed, this institution gives its students a great deal of control over their education. For example, there might not be set classes to graduate, but rather students themselves decide what to study and how many days a week they will attend. They can design their own homework and can hand it in whenever they are ready. Several of the five organizers of today’s program were students in En School and seemed to be doing well. In fact, each one of them had a dream for their future.
Those five young adults were very impressive. They organized and ran today’s entire program. It took over two months. No adult was involved. These leaders were intelligent, motivated, polite, and very caring. They carried themselves with dignity and confidence. They worked together well as a team and showed genuine interest in what all the participants had to say. Each one of them said they were involved in this work because they had suffered so much and wanted to help others who were in circumstances similar to their own. And in the future, they would like work that would allow them to continue supporting those in trouble.
The atmosphere those five young persons created was that of total trust and deep respect. The love generated in that room today was palpable. If people like those five will be accepted in Japan’s often overly rigid society, everyone will benefit, and the world, without any doubt, will become a much better place.
“My heart is very cluttered. I need a break. Would you go on a day trip with me?” my friend Noriko asked the other day. I do not have a car and am usually busy with one thing or another, so seldom get out of Sendai. So, a day outing was a privilege I could not refuse.
“Let’s take a local ferry and visit the farthest island on that route,” she suggested. Of course, I agreed.
The ferry was indeed carrying local fishermen.
And also a group of wonderfully precocious little boys on a school trip.
The island we selected was very small. All the houses were obliterated in the 2011 tsunami, but seventeen brave souls decided to return and rebuild their lives there. Thanks to the Red Cross and other admirable NGOs, the islanders were given money for new homes and a dock. The people we talked to were proud oyster fishermen and doing very well.
My friend and I returned home relaxed and filled with the delight of a day spent appreciating the beauty of ordinary life.
A few days later, Noriko contacted me again. “I need to go hiking. I hunger for it for my spiritual wellbeing. Everyone else is busy, but maybe you have time to join me. Will you?” she queried.
How could I say no? So, again we set off together, the second time in one week. That in itself was surprising since we usually make day excursions together about twice a year.
Unlike south Sendai, which is built up with factories, highways with huge trucks, the port with enormous freighters, the north side of the city immediately tumbles into thick forests and vivid green paddies. We both felt immediately soothed.
The hike we took was not difficult. And the charm of the setting was enhanced by mist that turned trees into ghosts or spirits beckoning us to join them. With pleasure we did.
Recently my art pieces have begun with only a vague idea. I put a color here, a line there, slowly unfolding where I want to go. Throughout the entire process I let the work instruct me. That way together we create something that speaks to us both. For me that seems to more authentically express my relationship to life at this stage.
Today’s beautiful outing seemed to mirror back to me what I have been working on for months in my art. Without hesitation, but with deep respect, I walked into the mist, the mystery, and slowly, encouraged by the forest, found my way.
One of my greatest joys as a foreign language teacher is when I am able to entice my students to a curiosity about a world wider than the rather provincial one many of them exclusively know. I have had luck in the past, and so am rewarded in many ways. A few former students, for example, work in international airports or as airline stewardesses; one is inundated with foreigners in Shinjuku Station in Tokyo; and several, after graduating, have lived overseas and return fluent in English. I am always honored when any of my students keep in touch with me, enabling us to become friends and equals as we continue to share our many life’s adventures, some exotic, most very mundane.
The other day I asked a student-now friend to come talk to one of my current university English classes. This remarkable woman is a major buyer of wines for a large chain store in Japan. She uses English everyday with clients, either on the Internet or the phone, and travels all over the world checking out vineyards and wineries. I am always impressed when I hear she is off to France or Spain, California or Chile, and sometime in the future South Africa.
My current students listened enraptured by Junko’s tales of how she further developed her English after graduating and how she uses it constantly in her work today. Of course, there were many questions after the lecture. One student’s stood out the most poignantly for me, probably because it related so closely to my own reality of living in a foreign country.
“I have never been overseas, and I want to go. But I can’t decide whether to take a tour or to live in another country. What do you suggest?”
Junko, with her years of experience, said, “Listen, when you are in your 20s, you should challenge yourself to everything you can. Some things will be really tough, but you will learn so much. And having the chance to live overseas gets harder the older you get. So, I say, do it now!”
Since I have my own store of foreign adventures, I took the liberty to add to Junko’s wise advice. “When you take a tour, things are all planned. You see the pretty places and take picture-perfect photos. But most often you don’t really have any contact with local people. But when you actually live overseas, you have lots of opportunities to do that. There are fun things like festivals . . .
“But you also have to deal with everyday things in a foreign language and culture. You have to go to the post office and supermarket. You might have to see a dentist or go to the hospital. You struggle to decipher forms that come in the mail. And you have to pay bills and go to the bank.
“Good luck. It is challenging, but always rewarding. And you can return to Japan anytime. But your overseas experiences will always be part of who you. They can never be taken away.”
Trump is in Japan today. And curiously, there is also a very intriguing art show of World Heritage treasures just outside Sendai. This exhibit features magnificent pieces found along the Silk Road, running from Japan all the way into Western Europe. Is there a synchronicity? How could there possibly be a connection between Donald Trump and some of the finest, most admirable creativity the world has ever known?
The start of this show begins in Japan. This country, being at the far eastern limit of the Silk Road, was the recipient of explorations further west. But we viewers are grounded here, and so appropriately this artistic journey originates from where we are, Japan.
To welcome us, a breathtaking triad of Buddha Shakyamuni and two attendants are at the threshold. They entice us with their subtle, yet majestic 1,400-year-old presence. This remarkable piece is found in Horyuji, considered the oldest temple in Japan. The Buddha’s robes flow like oceans or clouds, and the hundreds of circular knots in his hair are symbols of the infinity of universes contained in his being. On the surrounding walls are murals that hold this triad in their sacred rituals and protection.
From this profound experience, all contained in one dimly-lit room, we follow the route westward. In China we are allowed glimpses into the superb Dunhuang Mogao temple carved into a shadowy rock cave. The focal point of this holy space is centered on a sculpted Buddha and one attendant. Again, exquisite murals are womb-like around him, inviting the eye to roam across other painted Buddhas and hundreds of small saintly figures supporting the work of the Enlightenment in our mundane world.
Thanks to crystal sharp photography, we enter into Afghanistan. Here we are permitted thought-provoking images of the cliff Buddhas of Bamian before they were so deplorably bombed by Islamic fundamentalists, who sadly confuse literal with metaphorical readings of the Koran. This rugged country is blessed with deposits of lapis lazuli, so murals in surrounding regions still hold suggestions of faded blue skies and elegant azure clothing.
From there, this fascinating tour continues westward, abruptly becoming secular and European. But before entering that continent, it behooves us to consider why this entire show is unique. Surprisingly, each piece in it is a 3-D printed clone. None is the actual original, but rather a copy so well executed that it is barely distinguishable from its parent.
“Cloned Cultural Properties” is an official term coined by the Tokyo University of the Arts. Its purpose is to preserve masterpieces that are fragile and in danger of disappearing. It also greatly expands their exposure, allowing people everywhere to contemplate their varied messages. The tedious task of cloning happily combines art, culture, science and technology. It is so important that faculty and students from TUofA go to sites around the world and painstakingly clone the originals.
By the time this exhibit portrays a cloned Europe, a sense of imaginative play has entered the equation. Paintings have become sculptures, Van Gogh’s eyes glitter as his shirt ripples. Ukiyo-e prints, so adored by 19th century Europeans, have become short videos or even contain exotic scents. Cats frolic and chase each other, while ocean scenes evoke salty air, gardens emit floral aromas, and gorgeous damsels seduce, using perfume to add to their allure.
As we reach the western extreme of this Silk Road journey, what is cloned and what is original are barely distinguishable. Real has become a clone. And a clone had earned its own dignity by being exactly what it was: a prefect replica, a treasure in its own right.
Each clone in this exhibit was purposefully created to honor art worthy of our greatest respect and humility. And in that regard, it succeeds admirably. However, even this noble undertaking must be vigilantly monitored. Original becomes clone, can easily degrade into fake. What is made to perpetuate respect for truth can slide almost unnoticeably into ego-inflated falseness that only degrades all of humanity.
And that is where Trump’s current visit to Japan touches very closely with this exquisite exhibit of clones. He is the master of fake news. Surely, his present juxtaposition to this respect-deserving show gives a dire warning of what our world, actual and cloned, can become if we are not acutely aware.
Dear Family and Friends,
Japan is a culture of mystery. So much is hidden. Yet so much is revealed. Not necessarily overtly, but profoundly and powerfully. Subtlety and suggestion seep through every aspect of this land so deeply imbued with honor and respect.
令和 Reiwa. The new Japanese era starts today, May 1, 2019. The name itself haunts, calls from deep within. It offers wonder, mystery, and potential.
Rei 令 has a complex assemblage of meanings. “Order”, “rule”, “decree”. Those are the translations most often used. But it can also mean “comely” or “resplendent”.
Wa 和 suggests “peace”, “harmony”, “gentle”, “relief” even “Japan”.
Combined, what could those two characters imply? “Orderly peace”? “Reassurance through adhering to rules”? “Gentle rule of order”?
Maybe. However, those seem too harsh, too strict, far too severe.
After several transformations, the official translation has become “Comely Peace”, or more often, “Beautiful Harmony.”
The Man’yōshū poem that contains Rei and Wa reads:
It is now the choice month of early spring;
the weather is fine, the wind is soft.
The plum blossoms open . . .
The choice month, 令月 (Rei) The wind is soft, 風和 (Wa)
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe interpreted this by saying, “We hope to create a Japan brimming with hope, where all people can see their own flowers bloom to the fullest.”
(Nippon.com, April 1, 2019)
This morning, May 1, Naruhito became the new emperor. His ceremony was dignified and silent. He received two of the three regalia that symbolize his position and also two official seals. No one spoke. Yet, the ceremony was deeply moving.
Although Japan’s constitution clearly separates religion and government, rituals connected to the royal family are closely connected to Shinto.
Yata no Kagami, the Sacred Mirror, is believed to be in Ise, the most sacred and mother shrine of Shinto. It is said to emit divine power and to reveal truth. It could symbolize the mirror of the soul. This most holy of the holies was not used in today’s ritual. It is too sacred, too fragile to be moved.
Yasakani no Magatama, the Sacred Jewel, is a curved bead suggests that the Emperor is to rule with benevolence and generosity. This sacred item is kept in Tokyo.
Surely, these combined are a much-needed inspiration for not only Japan, but for the entire world.
Most of my working life I have been a teacher. Even though I greatly value life experiences, I also am keenly aware of the benefits that a formal education can give. Because of that, when one of my students consistently slept in class this past year, I sat down to have a chat with her. It turned out she had a part-time job in a restaurant where she worked very late hours. She often got home at 3 or 4 in the morning, and then had to get up around 7 to get to her first class on time. I know the kind of pressure bosses here put on their employees, especially since they are usually short staffed. Even so, I told my student that the choice was hers: to put her efforts into work or into her studies.
“But Sensei, I learn so much at my job.”
“I know you do and life will give you valuable lessons for as long as you are alive. But now, these four short years may be the only window of time you have for this sort of guided education into other cultures, other mentalities, and other languages.”
In the end, this young woman chose her job over her school work. She wrote the worst research paper of the entire class, even though her English abilities were some of the highest. I do not begrudge her her choice, but I do feel only she is responsible for the consequences of what she values.
Yet I continue to ask myself, “What for her, and many others like her, is the meaning of a formal education?” “And what can I do to make my students’ university experiences more relevant to their daily lives?”
* * * * *
A second situation happened long before I came to Japan. When I was in my late twenties, I lived in Morocco. One vacation I chose to go by bus as far south as the road would take me. I went well beyond Marrakech, until I reached the outer fringes of the vast, unfathomable Sahara Desert. On that journey I met an older man who was making his annual trip home from France to see his two wives and many children. He told me there were no hotels in the teeny dusty village we both were heading to. But being steeped Arab hospitality, he offered to put me up. I had no choice, so accepted.
What, indeed, was the purpose of a formal education for this unhappily aware woman?
* * * * *
* * * * *
One of my favorite classes consists of adults. Their English varies, but basically it is high enough that we can have some good discussions. In fact, four of them have lived overseas and one goes to Europe frequently to attend the opera. Because of their good language skills, I have the freedom to choose class materials from a wide range of sources: magazines or newspapers, TEDTalks or art, science or literature. Luckily, too, everyone is eager to talk, to joke, to disagree, and being Japanese, to deeply listen. Without a doubt, that time with those enthusiastic people is one of the highlights of my week.
Recently I found a series of articles in Al Jeezera that were focused on chefs around the world. There were ten of them, so I decided to work with each separately. The first was called “The Pastry Chef from Kabul”.
Before each class, I always prepare warm-up questions to ignite the discussion, and also to invite students to form their own ideas before listening to the article. Since I divide the students into small groups, the conversations usually take very different tracts, which also adds to the flexibility and delight of the hour.
However, this time before breaking into separate discussions, one man raised his hand and very seriously asked, “What is dessert?” (Dessert was a word on the question sheet I had just handed out.) I was taken aback. First, I was surprised because dessert is so obvious to me that I did not think it needed explaining. And second, because this particular gentleman had lived in America. But then the rest of the class pipped in, “Yes, what is dessert?” I was not expecting that either.
After discussing “desserts”, another student was confused by “pastry”. “Is ice cream a pastry? And how about candy or chocolate?” Again, I was caught off guard. However, one class member had lived in the Netherlands, so she explained that pastry needed flour. “So, a tart, a cookie, a piece of pie or cake would be pastry,” she explained.
“Oh, now I get it,” the older gentleman said with relief spreading over his face. And with that everyone else could relax, too. Then each group went its separate way to discuss sweets of all sorts and to shape their own notions of the truly marvelous and admirable Pastry Chef from Kabul.
Every aspect of this festival is highly symbolic. People walk the streets in groups, scantily clothed, shivering, stretching their physical and mental abilities to the limit.
Usually I head to the most popular shrine after dark, when the roar of celebration is loudest. But this year I added another dimension by going in daylight to smaller shrines, before the merrymaking had really started. It was humble and gentle, very personal and deeply touching.
In many ways this festival symbolizes a peeling away, not only of things, but of all preconceived ideas and past, shameful behavior. It is also a letting go of what we have known and loved so as to make room for what is to come.
But even as we make personal promises, collect personal fortunes, and make personal efforts, we know that anything we do or have is part of a collective offering. Indeed, as all the individual decorations are united to become fuel for one huge bonfire, Dontosai reminds us that each of us in this life is privileged to work and serve a greater whole. Some people see that as family, others as community or society, and others as this vulnerable world we call home. Whatever the dimension, the work is always there for us to serve in purity, in courage, and in deepest love.
During the terrible 2011 disaster here in Tohoku, many Tokyo developers awakened to the realization that this area would be a haven for filling their pockets. And sure enough, since then parts of this city have been transformed into a (very mini) Tokyo with flashy avenues and exclusive shops, expensive restaurants and multi-tiered department stores. Equally as sadly, surrounding farms are devolving into shopping malls.
My own neighborhood, too, which used to have mostly old houses with gardens and winding streets, once walking paths, is being devoured by this relentless hunger for tearing apart and rebuilding. What was once a garden is now a parking lot with three houses or an apartment block.
And today I was fortunate to able to do just that. Every year the Wakabayashi-ku Community Center has its Vegetable Celebration, offering the produce locals have grown as delicious soup. Today, as always, the atmosphere was alive with enthusiastic volunteers and eager guests. The cooking was simple, traditional, and rural in feel and in taste.
Two folks near my home have their own vegetable patches. One is very homemade. It was constructed in a parking lot out of flower pots. Besides the parking lot garden, this clever man, once a farmer who lost everything in the 2011 tsunami, also turned his entrance area into an abundant patch. Currently he has a daikon hanging from a lone tree to dry.
The other gardener in this area is an old woman who has been here for ages. She is very poor materially, but strong and rich in her attitude. Her home is a shack, so shabby that the front door no longer closes. But out front she, too, has a garden that feeds her year round.
Yes, there is much beauty in this area. Even as homes become like unwelcoming fortresses, the hearts of so many are somehow able to remain extremely generous and profoundly kind.
I grew up in Frederick, Maryland. In my childhood every autumn there was a grand event there called the Great Frederick Fair. It was a marvelous local happening. There were farm animals on display, for example. Students from my class were allowed a week off from school to stay with the sheep, pigs, or cows they had raised. There were stands of vibrantly alive vegetables and contests for patchwork, bread, and jams. The whole event held a small town, farming atmosphere that was special and surely love-life-filled. Even now I carry much of those rural roots in my soul. Maybe that is one reason I love Miyagi Prefecture as I do. Much of it, too, is rural and farming.
Today was a splendid autumn day with shimmering blue skies and crisp air. I had to go downtown and to my delight I came upon the Miyagi Marugoto Festival. It is a yearly event to celebrate what this prefecture has produced over the summer.
So, how could you translate “Marugoto”? Probably the best would be simply “Thanksgiving”. And that is exactly what it was. A perfect day filled with gratitude and endless thanks for so much that this lovely earth and we humans have to offer.
Dear Family and Friends, The Michinoku Yosakoi Festival is very loud and equally as colorful. It is in complete contrast to the subdued atmosphere of Sadou or Noh. But could it possibly have Kabuki or Samurai wars as a vivid inspiration? What is this boisterous event that every autumn bursts into Sendai, allowing proud participants to show off strenuous dances and rigorous banner waving as they take over every main street in the city? Essentially it is an enormous dance festival composed of competing groups from all over this region. Its purpose is sheer joy. Unlike other festivals in Tohoku, the Michinoku Yosakoi is only 21 years old. Its recent birth allows a flexibility and imaginative gaudiness that might otherwise be shunned. It is obvious that groups have choreographed their own dances and have practiced for months for this great event. The cohesiveness is palpable and uplifting. And indeed, what a pleasure to spend an afternoon with people joyously focusing on one creative purpose, putting aside possible differing beliefs and disagreements, in order to make the day a rollicking and happy celebration for all. Love, Anne
Shinto rituals, deeply aligned with Nature, most often manifest as dance. These performances are held at shrines cyclically and regularly in order to reassure the alignment of this earth with the patterns and wisdom of the Gods.
Each movement of these rituals, from the shaking of rattles to the stomping of feet, is precise and carries weight and meaning far beyond what the eye can see and the heart can feel.
Once a year Osaki Hachiman Jingu, an important Shinto shrine in Sendai, holds a special early autumn ceremony. Importantly, this occasion honors the young, especially children. For that there is a large art show by the community’s youngsters.
Two of my favorite children perform every year. This year Asahi, age 10, was confident and sure as he and his partner stomped and bowed, twirled and swayed in repetitive rhythmic dance.
Some of the rituals were performed by priests, but most were by local youngsters. Isn’t there so much symbolism and beauty in that tradition of blending the flow of life in all stages of becoming? The sense of belonging, of community, of being included is surely an integral part of the reminders this ceremony evokes. We are indeed a part of the energy and wisdom of the Gods and should forever strive to align our thoughts and actions accordingly.
Like many rural places in Japan, Murata’s population is dwindling. So, officials are seeking ways to keep it alive, and hopefully, to attract new inhabitants. There have been a few successes. Besides the merchant’s home, there are several places selling local crafts, a small restaurant with homemade, natural food, and a newly opened restaurant-bar. Also, several artists have shown interest in moving there. So, in the future there may be shops selling weavings, pottery, and stained glass.
With all this excitement about future possibilities, the town has begun to renovate some of its charming old buildings. One house in particular has recently been the focus of attention. In fact, the final touches of renewal are being made there now. When they are finished, the town officials hope to open it as a hotel.
My friend’s students are majoring in business. And this soon-to-be-hotel provided a perfect opportunity for a class project. From a business perspective they would evaluate their experience of spending the night in this newly renovated gem.
That evening after dinner my friend called her students together for a class. I was not involved, so headed directly to my futon. When the business discussion was over, my friend also went to bed. But not the girls. For them the evening was just beginning. They switched on the TV and yanked out packaged food. They took (soap-less) showers and washed their hair. They listened to music on their iPhones and chatted late into the night. The next morning, on minimal sleep, they spent hours putting on make-up, arranging their hair, and making sure their clothes were just right.
I had not been to Yomawari’s Soup Run for a while. But today since I was free, I headed down to the park to help out. I got there a few minutes early, so was able to watch the recipients slowly assemble. Some I recognized, but many I did not. And that was the start of many surprises.
As expected, there were the old men who have come for years. They always seem both humble and grateful. And maybe a bit shy to be receiving food and various take-away items, such as fuel for portable stoves, rice, toothbrushes, and recycled clothing.
But this time things were also different. First, there were many more waiting to be fed. Also, they were an array of ages, including several rather young. There were also many women. Usually there are none, or at most one or two. Today one younger woman had been a sex worker, but became ill and had just got out of the hospital. She looked awful and vomited all her food as soon as she had eaten it. It is very rare for this sort of woman to show up at a soup run because a pimp is usually in charge of her.
Perhaps the most surprising, though, was the fashion. Some of the women had very attractive clothing, bold necklaces, and nice shoes. I found that confusing, something I had never seen before and surely had not expected.
Coupled with that was the attitude. Rather than showing a sense of appreciation, as the old timers do, the new ones seemed to expect this handout, even with a touch of entitlement. I found that unusual, especially in this culture, where humility is taught from an early age.
I asked Imai Sensei for an explanation. His response was rather disturbing. “These people are suffering from addictions. Not only alcohol, which has been a problem for years. But now there are strong addictions to gambling and to online shopping. Many of these people actually have a room to live in, some even get social security payments. But what do they do? They gamble and shop, day in and day out, so by the middle or end of the month they have no money for food.
“This problem is getting worse. We help as best as we can, but we are limited. Sendai needs more addiction counselors. These people need more than food and take-home bags, showers and clean clothing. They need someone to guide them through the hard work of overcoming their addictions. Likewise, society really has to take a hard look at where it is going and offer something of meaning to its citizens. But sadly, I think things are going to get worse before they shift and start to improve.”
As you know, during the tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I wrote daily letters to family and friends. You were among them. Those postings were made into a book, Letters from the Ground to the Heart: Beauty within Destruction. Since that time, I have continued writing about events that have occurred here in Sendai and the Tohoku area. You have all received those letters.
Since 2011 was so significant for Japan, a friend suggested that the book be translated into Japanese. I agreed. And since she, Kumiko, is a professional translator, she offered to do the job. Again, I happily agreed.
The Japanese version, however, will be more than my letters. Unbeknownst to me, before I came to Japan, two of my relatives also had come to Sendai. One was an uncle who was sent here on a military mission just after World War II. The other was a great-great uncle who came almost 200 years ago. Lucky for me, I have a letter by my Uncle Had about his time in Japan, and a diary of my great-great uncle, written about his experiences here. Both are gems, so Kumiko and I decided they should be part of the Japanese book.
Besides her translation work, Kumiko has a very demanding regular job. So, we are aiming for the tenth anniversary of the quake for this version to appear. Likewise, Kumiko is an unusual translator. She does not work with words only, but also with feelings and surrounding circumstances. It is as if she enters the heart of the writer and tries to recreate the soul of a situation. This takes tremendous talent and, of course, a lot of time.
Kumiko has a young friend, Shuhei, who has muscular dystrophy. He is brilliant, but physically challenged. He has been frustrated by not being able to work, but Kumiko came up with the idea of having Shuhei translate Uncle Had’s 14-page letter. And since then, the three of us have formed a team: The Trio and The Letters. We are also known as ASK: from Anne, Shuhei, and Kumiko. That is a perfect acronym since we three constantly ask each other questions to learn more about Uncle Had and the era when he was here.
Ever since this three-way project began, Shuhei and I have been writing almost daily. Even so, we had never met. Until today, that is. This afternoon the ASK Team got together and spent a wonderful time simply as friends. Now our work will surely be much more complete because it covers many dimensions, all rising directly from the heart.
This morning at 4 a.m. it was pouring in torrents. By 6 o’clock it had completely stopped. The gods were being kind since today was OISCA’s annual “Tree Planting Festival”. Along the coast near Sendai, in Natori City, where the 2011 tsunami hit the hardest, OISCA has been working with locals to rebuild the 500-year-old forest devastated in that disaster.
OISCA guides; it does not control. Locals are in charge; OISCA assists. OISCA is here temporarily; locals will stay for generations. So, OISCA is more a teaching-learning project than a regular NGO. That is a philosophy I strongly espouse, so am happy, even proud, to lend my small support to this great organization.
I also love the people. They range in age from grandparents to new borns. One lovely gentleman, for example, has trouble walking, but volunteers with OISCA regularly. Today he higher minded his bad back in order to mentor an eager youngster on how to use a hoe and to plant properly. Surely, the seeds sown today were far more than black pine.
There were many high school students, too. I was lucky to pair up with a young girl, shy but lovely. We dug holes, planted, stomped the earth around our newly installed pine, gave a tug to be sure the tree was in securely, and moved on to the next. And the next. And the next . . .
There were grandmas and grandpas, too, knowledgeable, wise, and hard working. They expertly sped through their work, leaving perfect rows of baby trees behind. And then they shifted to give a helping hand where needed.
Probably everyone’s favorites, though, were the families with teeny kids. Two couples in particular were especially honored. One because they had met a few years ago — at an “OISCA Tree Planting Festival” — and today arrived with the latest member of the family.
And of course, there were the officials. Yoshida San, the man I met at the OISCA photo show several years ago and who turned me on to the magic and wonder of this organization. He is now the head of this rebuilding project in Natori.
This year I did not write on March 11, seven years after the devastating trauma that changed our lives forever. It was not out of forgetfulness. On that day we honored the deceased and those still struggling. We had ceremonies and paid our respects. We held rituals and prayer services all day and well into the night.
Personally, I entered a time of quiet reflection, not wishing to press Tohoku’s situation upon unconcerned others. Indeed, as one friend said, “So many places in the world are suffering more than we are now. We must put our attention where help is most needed. We remember our past, of course, and are now building for our future. Yet it behooves us to stay open to the tragic events in the lives of people worldwide.”