The other day, I read a short article about some young men from Tokyo who had gone back to one of the hardest hit areas. One of them was searching for his parents’ home, and his two friends had come along to help.
Many times a house cannot be found because it was swept out to sea; other times you can find it, but hundreds of meters away from where it was supposed to be, carried an unimaginable distance by the tsunami.
That was the case with the now famous pair -- grandson and grandmother -- rescued over a week after the tsunami. The family had felt very strongly that the pair were still alive, somewhere. They had had a phone call right after the quake from the grandson who told them they were at home, and okay, and then the call was cut off and they heard no more. The family came to look in the coming days, at where the house should have been, but also further away. They looked and looked, circling wider and wider in their search, but never quite far away enough because who can imagine a world wrenched so hugely awry? The two were safe, though, and trapped in a small space near a refrigerator, so could eat a few things, and drink some water, until the grandson could finally find a way to the roof and wave his arms and call to rescue workers, “My grandmother is inside.” Both of them say that talking with the other one kept them alive, able to hope.
But getting back to the three young men from Tokyo. The hometown boy did not find his family home, but the three stayed to search the area because they came upon so many belongings strewn everywhere, as far as the eye could see.
At first, he was just looking for something, anything, from his home that he could bring his parents, but they kept finding so many of the lightest things that had floated ashore: photos, drawings, photo albums, notebooks, certificates, books. They started to collect as many as they could thinking that if they brought them somewhere and kept foraging and finding more, people to whom they belonged, people who had lost everything but memories -- these people might come and claim something that was theirs.
I was watching the short amount of news I allow myself these days and happened to see a quick segment showing one of these rooms of ‘things’. Whether it was the collection the boys started or not, I am not sure. The idea caught on and soon most towns had such rooms. I had the sound turned down and so wasn’t listening to the voiceover, but was just looking. Things were neatly sorted out in long lines: someone had thought to put like things together: photo albums in a long line like train cars, a ‘photo gallery’ over there: wedding photos, graduation photos, family and travel photos, and ‘Coming of Age Day’ photos.
Both the graduation and Coming of Age Day photos have a depth of meaning that is hard to grasp unless you know this culture, but when you do, you can’t see these things in the ‘room’ without being moved.
Graduation ceremonies are very big deals here: I remember being surprised and amused, when I first got here, to hear that mothers get all dolled up for and even (shock!) fathers attend kindergarten graduation. But there are very elaborate, stylized ceremonies at every level, from kindergarten to college; it is an important ritual to both child and family.
Among the most moving short segments of the many we are still getting every night on the news, are the various graduation ceremonies (the school year begins in April in Japan, so graduation is in March ) where either a child has died, and so the father or mother sits in their seat with a photo of the child on their lap, or a parent is not there to witness this event and we see the poor child go up, knowing they are going through this family ritual with a broken heart.
‘Coming of Age Day’ photos -- this is a treasure that you can’t guess at from outside the culture because we don’t have anything like this. ‘Coming of Age Day’ is when all the young Japanese who have turned twenty that year ‘become adults’ and have a ceremony at their city hall. A few young men dress up in traditional male Japanese clothing, but most wear a western suit.
Almost all the young women, though, rent very expensive kimono, and get up at the crack of dawn to be ready. Literally: I have a friend who helps them put on their kimonos because young women can’t do it themselves -- it is very complicated and they are not used to it -- and she is up by 4 a.m. to help them dress and have their hair and makeup done professionally. This photo is often the only time they will ever wear a kimono and is priceless.
I could also see children’s drawings and things rolled up into tubes that looked like diplomas. What moved me most, though, was one ‘drawing’ that some child had made: two hand prints in the middle of a background so white that you knew someone had carefully cleaned the mud from it. The hand print art reminded me of a short article in today’s paper about a donation from Indonesia: ten thousand people, lining up for hours in front of the Japanese embassy, “stamped their palm prints onto a huge board in Jakarta on Sunday as a message of solidarity to the survivors” of the disaster.
And this in turn brought to mind another image from perhaps a week ago, when volunteers were just starting to be able to make it to the worst-hit areas. The news program had found a few different types of people to focus on: the people from Niigata and the Kobe area who had been through their own earthquakes and who had been helped by others and wanted to give back; the teachers who made sure their families were okay and then went back to spend some time each day with their students in the shelters.
One that was so culturally attuned that only someone from here, or someone who had spent time in Japan would get the full impact of was this sight: the rescue workers who rigged up, as one of their first priorities every area they came to, bathing areas (not showers -- the point was not merely to be clean) because there is little that a Japanese finds more soothing than a long soak (and any onsens, hot spring resorts, in the areas who were not too damaged, also immediately allowed people to use their baths for free).
One of the first times I saw anyone from an evacuation shelter smile was the first scenes of them making use of onsens and these bathing areas. And the community aspect of it was/is important. Men and women bathe separately, but you usually bathe with all ages together: grandmas and middle-aged women and mothers with their young children, fathers, sons and grandfathers, after a week or more with no running water (and you know how fanatic the Japanese are about cleanliness...), all relaxing, talking from time to time, and finding some bit of comfort, together.
But the group that made me cry was a collection of elementary or possibly junior high students that arrived like a flock of chicks and descended on one shelter saying, “The massage team is here!” Grandchildren in Japan often massage the aching shoulders of grandparents. It is a custom I have always found sweet. To see these children doing so, for strangers they were treating as their precious grandparents, and to watch the complex emotions steal over the faces of the elderly men and women who received this gift, is something that will stay with me for a long time.
I think that here is one thing I take away from this: that yes, food, electricity, water and medicine have all been vital to get to those in Tohoku, but other kinds of help are just as important. It is the spirit, the heart, that needs food, too, to keep the body alive.