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A Japanese disaster on another day: A personal story

March 17, 2011 |  3:28 am

Japan Devastation at Night 3-14-11

Watching Japan from afar and the slow-motion unfolding of one of the worst natural catastrophes of modern times, two things strike home.

I had the privilege of living and working in that ancient land for several years. There were things there to become accustomed to: I found it initially intrusive that upon registration as an alien resident local police came to the house to identify and photograph every occupant and map their bedroom. The polite explanation was in case of emergency, like the one the world is witnessing now.

Standing at a crosswalk with my family, I was initially offended at the regular strangers who felt free to touch the exotic blond hair of my children. Living packed among then about 120 million humans with black hair, they smiled back out of simple curiousity about this yellow stuff atop my sons' heads. The boys, in turn, took to wearing baseball caps -- for Japanese teams.

I was initially repulsed (and frankly still am) at the thought of Eskimo pie ice cream bars packed with beancurd. In Japan, Ronald McDonald is Donald McDonald, given their difficulty with the sound of English r's. Out in the yard at midnight on New Year's, you can hear the most beautiful symphony of somnolent gongs rolling out over every neighborhood as Buddhist monks slam giant logs into the massive bells at every temple.

In the darkness of a downtown movie theater buried in the third sub-basement of a skyscraper, a Japanese friend handed out bags of crunchy snacks. Who knew the movie munchies were squid chips?

The American movie as I recall was "Wilderness Family" about the....

... predictable adventures of four Californians who flee a crowded city to live free in the forest with bears and mountain lions. At one point the father warns the children the nearest neighbor is 25 miles away. On the screen came the Japanese subtitles quoting him as saying the nearest house was 40 kilometers distant.

What do you think was the Japanese audience reaction? They laughed uproariously. Forty meters, maybe. But 40 kilometers to the nearest neighbor in a California-sized nation with three times the population? You've gotta be kidding, right? On those islands you could pack several cities into that area.

Present a gift to someone and watch them courteously set it aside like nothing happened. To rip it open would not be sharing joy, but rudely checking its value. Be careful what you say as a guest. I casually admired a pear farmer's wooden carving of an eagle. Next day he gave it to me with great ceremony and calloused hands. His daughter stifled my protests with pleas not to insult his hospitality.Ten Yen Coin

One thing that struck me and maybe you too watching the awful news events unravel in Japan this week was what we didn't see: looting. Like any society, Japan has its graft and corruption. But stealing is rare, even packages in parked cars with open windows.

I was in an underground Osaka mall one afternoon with a young Japanese friend who wanted to use a pay phone. He fumbled in his pocket for a 10 yen coin (about three cents in those days) to initiate the call. Next to the bright red phone I spotted a 10 yen coin.

"There's one," I announced.

"It's not mine," he said. I'd bet you 100 yen right now that coin is still sitting by the phone, awaiting its original owner.

I saw up close back then Japanese endure the twin calamities of an earthquake and violent volcano in Hokkaido. Mile upon mile of rich farm countryside was covered with eight inches of pumice ash suffocating anything beneath.

Watching the latest quake victims interviewed by reporters, vivid memories of that previous disaster rushed back. I had come upon an old woman rummaging through wreckage. Yes, she said, nodding politely with each sentence. They had lost everything. The house used to be right here. Nothing left. And a daughter missing as well.

I had been overwhelmed that day, as I am again today, with the unimaginable scale of such cataclysm. Beyond even tornadoes. But then I became even more stunned by the response of those Japanese people, their strength and stoicism. No self-pity. No wailing, whining. No blaming government. No victimhood. No what-will-we-ever-do? In fact, the less they said, the stronger they seemed.

Then, the Japanese farm woman bowed deeply, mumbling something. Sorry, I asked, what did you say?

Turns out, the newly homeless woman was apologizing for being unable to serve me tea.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: AFP / Getty Images

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