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A stranger offers a simple kindness

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Words do not come easily at moments like these. As I looked upon the ruins of what once was Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, I thought of the words of the Japanese poet Basho, who referring to another era in Japanese history wrote,

The whole country devastated only mountains and rivers remain. In springtime, at the ruined castle, the grass is always green.

We went to Iwate to see the devastation first hand, with representatives from the UN, World Food Program and USAID, and to see what else needed to be done to alleviate the suffering of the local population. We sat at a simple table, amongst stacked relief supplies and my mind wandered as I had a, “what the hell am I doing in this dream,” moment, reading in Japanese the word “braziers” on one of the relief supply boxes. I suppose that is when I realized that the local people I was sitting with had lost everything in the maelstrom.

The human mind does not have answers for such things; certainly not the modern American mind that finds itself obsessed with the mundane, the trivial, that sweats the small stuff until momentarily jolted by reality like when the kids have to go to the hospital.

But what does one do when one loses everything? All of their possessions, their pets, their family, their memories, their dignity. How does one begin to contemplate the idea of a hospital full of patients, many of them elderly and bed ridden, lying in their beds as the great wave rushes towards them, while doctors and nurses frantically try to move them to the fourth floor, but the power is out so the elevators don’t work, then the wave hits taking out three floors of patients, doctors, nurses, visitors, leaving only 15 or 16 people alive, out of hundreds, to make it to the roof and begin their new life, doomed to have this recurring nightmare until they die.

We think in terms of absolutes, that is the human way. And most of us live in that black and white world, missing the very important, subtle hues that make life worth living as well as giving us the respect for life that only horrific events stimulate the perception of.

As I looked at the relief effort from my distant perch, I thought in terms of those killed, those who survived, those evacuated, those fed, those clothed, those in shelters – until I could comfort myself that the numbers of those being “helped” was sufficient to set my one-dimensional mind at ease. But up close and personal to the issue, perspectives are drastically different, visceral, razor sharp and discomforting.

I never imagined that in the ruins of something like this, normal human, and particularly Japanese psychology would take hold and dictate their foul, heartbreaking terms. Like the people whose houses survived, sitting at home without power, perhaps missing a relative, or two, or three, hungry and cold – as Iwate has a harsh winter climate – too ashamed to go to a shelter to get food, for fear of incurring the scorn of those living in the shelter who had lost everything. A post-apocalyptic paradigm fit for "Mad Max" but not for modern, comfortable Japan.

There are those who deal in this currency more than I. True riverboat gamblers of tragedy and mercy. To those men and women I tip my hat. This is not my stock and trade. In some weird way I am more comfortable planning to kill people than I am trying to save them, and in the process of trying to help a small amount of them have arrived at more questions than if I were trying to destroy them, in the name of my country of all things. I would have to say that this has shaken me to a degree I did not anticipate. Then I think, “who am I to claim to be shaken?”

Any man that is able to walk away from a tragedy and be unaffected by its ravages is by definition not a victim of it. But the human animal is a weird animal, and the curse of consciousness afflicts our lucidity, throwing us off course, making us turn in on ourselves in solemn contemplation. Some people turn to religion to explain it. I choose to think of it as inexplicable, because I judge myself unable to add reason to it, and unable to trust the judgement of my fellow man who knows no better.

Then when we seem at our darkest moment, a stranger offers a simple kindness that is so profound, it shakes us back to our senses as if it were a tsunami of the soul. At the end of my visit to Rikuzentakata, a once-beautiful town, I was offered by their ever-beautiful, enduring people, a gift of their local sweets – literally from the hands of people who had lost everything. Despite my protestations that I could not, in the circumstances, accept any such thing from a folk so aggrieved, they told me that these sweets were the one thing they had plenty of and were a specialty of their town that they were eager to show off. So I relented and accepted. And as we drove away in our car and I contemplated the sweet clutched in my hand, I decided it was right that I should eat it. So I did. I have never eaten anything so delicious.

© Japan Today

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14 Comments
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Beautifully written and very poignant.

I wish I could write like you do!

-1 ( +6 / -7 )

Well-worth reading. However:

In some weird way I am more comfortable planning to kill people than I am trying to save them,

What??

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'm as confused as you Maria...maybe he is a gamer & much more accustomed to the world of first person shooters than the reality he encountered in Tohoku. That's my guess & I'm sticking to it.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

since he added "in the name of my country of all things" at the end of that phrase, I assume he is hinting at the American double standard of humanitarian efforts and military action.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Hello all. I am the author of the piece and I knew there would be confusion over it since it was picked up from my blog a year after the fact. That is fine because I stand behind the piece and JT's decision to run it. But it probably should have been accompanied by an explanation that I spent 22 years in the U.S. Army, many of those years as a war planner. The failure is mine alone as I did not provide that information to JT. So the throw-away line of planning to kill people on a personal blog, comes off sounding out of place here. I am sorry for any confusion. So the byline should say, "The author is a retired U.S. Army Officer and presently works on security and humanitarian assistance/ disaster relief issues in the Asia-Pacific region".

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Ohhhhh! Now I get it. It all makes sense now.

Thanks Gaijinphotogragher! Nice piece!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Cheers Gaijinphotographer - I was imagining International Man of Mystery / Assassin.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

poignant yet heartwarming...goosebumps and tears while reading it ,but when I get to the last part, my heart said...aww...and felt better....nice piece altogether!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Maria, who said I wasn't an International Man of Mystery? Thanks for the comments and Ganbare Japan!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

jt, more of this guys writing pls.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Gaijinphotographer, I do not say this very often but you made me feel this story in a way I haven't in a long time and I really, really thank you for that. I wish we could 'thumb-up" writers in an effective way here because you'd get a ton from me.

Thanks.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The human mind does not have answers for such things; certainly not the modern American mind that finds itself obsessed with the mundane, the trivial, that sweats the small stuff until momentarily jolted by reality like when the kids have to go to the hospital.

I suppose you are living in your world and only have a general idea of what everyone is here in the US! I personally love to see passion in people! A show of love and I detest controllers of any kind! Open your eyes, all of you! There are people that exist everywhere that have the passion to show care and kindness when tragedy strikes! I understand the thinking behind the generalities of the US but at the same time, the suffering of other people in this world! Not everyone is the same! The article is basically beauty at it's essence, but leave your observations or opinions of your perceived perfectionism out of the equation! It serves no purpose in the thought of love!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i registered here to thank you for this article. its good to have reminders that we humans aren't psychotic apes who can only murder or hump each other.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Very heart-touching story. If I were there I would start crying, because even though Im not Japanese, I admire them for the fact that they have always endured hardships and stand together (no matter if they know each other) as a strong/loving nation. =)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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