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Eighteen years ago, I moved to Japan to teach English. I was in my early thirties, divorced, and a new college graduate. In my childhood, I’d lived in the Middle East, Europe and the States, but I’d never been to Asia. This was my chance to go.
I lived in Fukuoka, the eighth largest and probably the oldest city in Japan for a year. The city sits on the Sea of Genkai on the west coast of Kyushu, Japan’s large southern island. My job was at a “juku,” a private school for kids and adults who want to enhance their language skills.
My students ranged in age from two-year olds brought in by anxious parents wanting to give their kids an educational head start in the highly competitive Japanese school system, to a ninety-two year old family matriarch who believed that it was never too late to learn new things. (At eighty-six, she’d learned to drive, at ninety, to swim). Two-thirds of my students were school aged, one-third adults. All of them – to a person – were wonderful!
I taught between six and eight classes a day. With school-aged students, the focus was on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. In adult classes, we focused more on formal and informal conversation. While I loved teaching the kids, my favorite classes were with the adults, especially, the advanced “Housewives Class,” a group of thirteen married women who for one reason or another wanted to hone their English speaking abilities. Kiko, my ninety-two year old student was in this class, as was Ria, a twenty-something newlywed, and Mariko who was in her mid-thirties and struggled with the depression that sometimes comes when restrictive gender roles become entangled with wealth.
Fukuoka is not particularly earthquake prone and in the year I lived there we only felt a few mild temblors. However, Namazu, the Japanese catfish that causes earthquakes, swims in very large circles.
In the evening of January 17, 1994 as I watched a silly game show and waited for the sun to rise on the other side of the planet. I was waiting until 6:00 a.m. California time to call my twin brother and wish him a happy birthday. Suddenly the television screen suddenly went blank, then was filled with map of America’s Pacific Coast. Animated red rings rippled out from Los Angeles.
Although I did not speak Japanese, it took just a moment to understand what had happened: An earthquake had struck the LA area. From the pace and timber of the news reporter’s voiceover and the hours-long commercial-free coverage, I knew it a bad one.
Panicked and frantic, I picked up the telephone and began dialing. And dialing. And dialing. It took a long while for my calls to get through, but when they did, each was answered with good news. My twin brother, other two brothers, Mom, and other family members living in Southern California were safe, their homes intact, their lives shaken but unharmed.
The next day, the English version of the Japan Times arrived and every day after for about a month it reported the slowly unfolding details of the quake. Eventually we learned that the Northridge Quake (as it was being called) had struck with a magnitude of 6.7. It had killed nearly 100 people, injured almost 9,000, and had wrought billions of dollars in damages. Buildings, parking structures and freeways had collapsed. Still, the area of damage was small, overall casualties were relatively low, most of the region’s infrastructure was intact, the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants were still fully functional. California had been wounded, but once again, she had dodged the Big One.
When the first Housewives Class met the Friday following the quake, I asked the women what they would do if the Big One ever hit Japan.
One of the students – I’ve forgotten which – said that she would stay home and wait for the government to tell her what to do. The other students agreed. “Yes,” they said. “It is best to wait for instructions.”
I was surprised. Amid the Northridge details reported in the newspaper were the heroic accounts of citizens flocking to the damaged areas, clawing through the rubble to rescue others.
“What would you do while waiting?” I asked the class.
Each woman said she would remain calm. That was all.
“You wouldn’t try to get to the disaster area to help?”
“No,” they said, explaining they would not want to risk interfering with trained rescue workers.
“You wouldn’t call family and friends to make sure they were okay?”
“No,” they said, explaining they would not want to tie up telephone circuits needed by emergency personnel.
“You would do nothing?” I was truly astounded.
No, they said. They would remain calm. They would wait for instructions. Kiko said that she would light incense and say prayers for those in harm’s way. The others agreed.
Now, for the first time, I understand what my students were trying to tell me. Remaining calm, awaiting instructions when catastrophe strikes is not “doing nothing.” In fact, it is an amazing feat of personal discipline. The same discipline that enables the Japanese made homeless by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami to stand in lines awaiting water, food, gasoline, radiation checks without ransacking still-standing communities and causing further damage. The same discipline that enables others, further from the epicenter to go on with their lives in ways that enhances the overall survival of their countrymen and women.
Would we do so well here?
I imagine my students today, still in Fukuoka, safe and far from the devastation. Kiko is likely long gone, though if anyone could make it to 121 years old, it would be her. Ria, Mariko and the rest are probably staying quietly in their homes, following directives to remain calm, minimize electricity and telephone usage. They’re probably burning incense and saying prayers. They’re probably watching as their country struggles to stand on her feet while Namazu, the catfish, thrashes out aftershock after aftershock and the Fukushima Daiichi Plant No. 1 teeters on the brink of nuclear catastrophe.