by Walter Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
March 2, 2009
PART II: WHEN THE LAPDOGS GOT TEETH
AMORI, Japan -- Japan sits on three interacting plates of the earth's crust. They interact, grind and cause quakes. This country is part of an archipelago of 3,922 islands that were formed 15 million years ago by magma-spouting volcanoes. The people here learn to live on the edge of the hostile sea and on very unstable land.
As I was listening to the French tv station this morning and cooking a Japanese noodle soup, the windows started to rattle and the floor began to rock 'n roll. I got that queasy feeling you get when you are in a whiteout or other disorienting situation.
This was the second time I have been in an earthquake in three weeks. The adults here take these 6.0 quakes in stride. The children, however, tell me they don't like them at all. That's because they live in 10-story-high apartment buildings and are afraid they will get stuck inside if a temblor dismantles their home.
The Japanese are constantly threatened by sudden change. Living with earthquakes has shaped their way of living. Houses, for the most part, are not built of stone but of wood with paper-thin walls. These walls sway with the shifts of the land and are quickly rebuilt after a quake.
According to one of the chaplains, the Buddhist and Shinto customs and folklore teach the importance of recognizing the impermanence of all things. The acceptance of the transitory nature of life is evident in their gardens, architecture and their rituals. Esoteric Buddhists believe that God is everywhere: in the trees, water, waterfalls, rocks and the earth. All things in nature are the embodiment of the spiritual world.
The arrangement of their gardens emphasizes the changeable yet eternal aspects of life. They are planned to express this to touch us subtly yet deeply, and to remind us that we are all apart of something larger than ourselves. I will look at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco with a keener eye now.
I walked downtown today to see if there was an art museum or performing arts center. I was fortunate and found the city auditorium (just built by a huge donation from Yamaha) in time for a three-hour performance. I enjoyed traditional Japanese dance, jokes, music and song. The performers ranged in age from 5 to 75.
The place was packed, even though admission cost more than $15.00. Some of the performances were amateur and others were professional. The audience voted for the performers by placing envelops on the stage during each performance. One of the best artists wound up with many votes and also the wallet of one of the members of the audience. There was plenty of money in it and the crowd roared!
I am enjoying the blend of old and new here. The dances, make-up, instruments and costumes included some that were ancient and others with modern twists. The people I've met have an enthusiasm for everything new but they make it their own. It seems that the Japanese have managed to keep their identity while absorbing Western ideas.
At base preschool, the American children are learning some of the Japanese characters. Most Japanese children memorize the basic 1,850 characters in elementary school and learn far more to become literate. Yet they have a higher literacy rate than we do in America - and they have to master two other alphabets to be considered truly educated.
I have been working with a 21-year-old woman who grew up at Misawa. Her Dad came here for military work when she was two. She has tried to live in Texas and New Jersey where she has relatives, but she prefers the simple, slow pace of Misawa.
She doesn't mind that the buildings are all painted the same beige color or that the speed limit is 40km per hour (42.8 miles per hour), or that she is pretty isolated.
I went to the 100-yen store with her. We purchased arts-and-crafts supplies for kids at the youth center. It was so much fun to buy really good items for the children. I am used to working at non-profits where we had limited budgets for such "luxuries." There is higher quality and a larger variety of things than at our 99-cent stores. My new "friend" was able to furnish most of her home with many items from the 100-yen store.
Work with the children brings me so much joy and fun. One little guy grabbed my hands when I gave him different colored yarn to make Ojos de Dios (Eyes of God). He said "Boy, your hands smell so good!" (I had just applied some lavender-scented hand creme). He added: "They smell just like my grandmother's hands."
He placed my hands on his face and proceeded to talk about how much he missed his grandmother in Arizona.
This opened a discussion that included five other children at the table about how much they miss their family members. Using Popsicle sticks and toothpicks, we proceeded to make over a hundred colorful Eyes of God to send to family and friends to whom the children want to stay connected. One little girl made several for her aunt, who is fighting breast cancer back in Ohio.
That's what I'm here for: to help the children talk about separations and reunions, attachments and the grief of thousands of little losses that they face so often. I help them deal with the transitory nature of life!
The author lives on a remote American military base in Japan.