I woke up this morning to news that favorable winds, giving Japan it’s only real break in this continuing disaster, blowing radioactive air out to sea, had turned, and now are heading straight back into towns already decimated by a 9.0 earthquake and 30 foot tsunami. I thought about the core level terror that the idea of radiation sickness must inflict on the Japanese people. And that reminded me of Natsumi Michihira.
The family that raised me during the 60’s and 70’s here in the bay area were progressives. They never told me what their politics were, they only insisted that I vote. They were of opposite spiritual beliefs but left it entirely up to me to explore that realm or not. Their friendships showed me a cultural pluralism that ingrained so deeply in me that when I step foot other places where white is all they’re serving I feel uncomfortable. My father was the token round-eye in an Asian tennis club. Ma did theater and clowning. I knew plenty of gay people and met my first transsexual when I was probably 10. The families we spent most of our weekends with were a family of hippies raised by beatnik parents, a black & white couple from the east coast who did co-op farming, and a pair of Japanese immigrants, first generation, with two sweet daughters.
Toshi and Natsumi were soft spoken, polite and very nice people. Their daughters straddled the line between their parents traditions and the gratifications of California. They taught me about Japanese culture by exposing me to their fairly spartan lifestyle, festivals and especially their food! God do I love Japanese food, but then Natsumi was a great cook and first impressions are everything. Their english wasnt all that great but being influenced by them at such an early age it didnt occur to me that this was something to be mocked, that they were somehow retarded because they couldnt talk right. No, it caused me to pay closer attention, to notice the strained and embarrassed looks on their faces, to read other cues they gave – and most importantly to realize that they each knew at least two languages, and how ridiculous do I look thinking them inferior when I know but one. Megaduh.
In 1994 Natsumi fell gravely ill and died very quickly. The Big C. It was my first Buddhist funeral and I remember it as if it was last week. Each person walks up to an elaborate urn and sprinkles incense into it, then turns to the grieving family and silently bows. Looking Toshi in the eye as I did so was the most profound expression of grief, respect, love and compassion I’ve ever been a part of. Nothing in the dozens of western funerals I’ve attended touches that one act of caring. Crap, the memory of it makes me cry now. When I returned to my seat I read through bleary eyes the memorial card each of us received as we walked into the Temple.
Born 1940 Nagasaki, Japan
Died 1994 Sunnyvale, California
Natsumi died of Leukemia. The weight of it floored me. The enormity of all the ramifications of it. Of how this particular death could affect her husband. Of the choices they made to come here of all places, given that they’d been touched first hand by the bomb. In some respects I still cant wrap my head around being in their shoes. But it continues to speak volumes about their courage and character.
Now you probably think you already know what’s coming next; the Apology. And you’d be wrong. This blog isnt about rethinking my Grandparent’s decisions in the waning days of WWII. In fact, given the sheer brutal tenacity of the Japanese fighter, more so the closer we got to the Homeland, coupled with their belief in their Emperor as a near deity, dropping the bombs likely saved 2 million lives on both sides of a land invasion. No, what inspired my fingers to require abuse of this keyboard was a combination of thoughts and feelings.
I’ve heard several people prophesy the coming lawlessness and post-apocalyptic chaos that we all know our society would delve into a week after *we* had a Great Quake, followed by a 30 foot wash and rinse with no Daddy Guvmint to save us in any practical way would be replicated in the Land of the Rising Sun. It wont. Thinking so is simply myopic. Their national psyche is such that they’d rather sacrifice their own lives, moving in teams to their mortally wounded nuclear facility, asking older employees to go first because they’d be less likely to develop cancers before they passed of natural causes than younger workers. It’s shop owners *lowering* their prices in affected areas so that people can get what they need. It is the anti-selfish. It reminds me that courage and selfishness are mutually exclusive. It’s being afraid and doing the right thing anyway.
I think of Toshi and Natsumi and my Mom and Dad and I remember that the fruits of a tree are rarely seen by those that planted the seeds. I sure am grateful for the seeds they all planted in me. And I pray for the people of Japan. For what they’re showing the rest of the world. Churchill famously said that America always does the right thing – after it’s exhausted all other options. We are first and foremost a nation of Christian values – with a fat helping of ‘Hey! Look at Me! Arent I great?’ Often for no good reason. We usually arent bright enough to realize we should be embarrassed by our collective behavior. Today isnt one of those days. And I’m glad for the seeds planted so many years ago, to see the miracles amid the suffering thousands of miles away. It inspires me to be even quieter in how I go about being in service today.