Monday, March 21, 2011
There is no "I" in "Japan"*
The Japanese word for "I" has four syllables: wa-ta-ku-shi. Kind of a cumbersome word in conversation, and they hardly ever use it. Where we would say "I am going to school" in English, they would simply say "going to school," with the reference to first person being implied. Whenever I have a Japanese conversation, my American-ness really shows in that I tend to want to use the watakushi word a lot. Scott often reminds me to drop it, and then I feel so self centered for having used it in the first place. We Americans value our own opinions so much, we start a large number of our sentences with "I." I want, I heard, I think...
I (har) have been thinking a great deal about the Japanese culture lately, in light of reports on how they are handling the earthquake/tsunami tragedy as a society. My heart just goes out to them as a people. What is the death toll at now? 8,000? It is horrific to see the tragic human drama going on over there, and inspiring to see the stoic way the people are cleaning up. Maybe it's weird to say, but I feel sort-of, well, proud of them. Not to condescend in any way; it is an admirational variety of pride.
Last November, Scott and I found ourselves lodging in the French Quarter of New Orleans. We did lots of the typical tourist stuff while there and had a great time. But even though it has been over five years (I know, crazy, huh?) since Hurricane Katrina, people there are still talking about it. The French Quarter is as beautiful and charming as ever, but the people are clearly still traumatized, and so is much of the infrastructure of the greater New Orleans area.
We drove through the Lower 9th Ward and saw much of what you've undoubtedly seen on the news- lots of boarded up homes, and empty lots with nothing but driveways that once lead to attached garages. Occasionally we'd see holes in the roofs of the condemned houses, which I didn't think much of, until it was called to my attention that such a hole had been the only exit for a family trapped in the attic of their flooded home.
There is no question the victims of Hurricane Katrina suffered unimaginable trauma. Many long-time residents have fled, and the economy still hasn't recovered. If my research is accurate, the final death toll was 4,081.
In the heart of New Orleans there is a Katrina museum where you can follow the events from storm to social breakdown. It was hard to be reminded of the tragedy and ensuing fiasco. No matter who you think was at fault for not getting aid to people sooner, I'm sure we all wish we could have seen the united efforts of survivors the way we're seeing them in Japan. Where they've lost twice as many people. Where they've not just suffered one natural disaster, but two. Where they are experiencing the second greatest nuclear nightmare in their history. Yeah, it was also unbearably hot after Katrina. Sendai has been covered in snow. Enough said.
Are we doing enough to prepare ourselves for natural disasters? Are we prepared mentally to simply be civil in an emergency? Could we turn off "Dancing With the Stars" for 15 minutes to come up with a plan for our own families? Are we in the U.S. doomed to expect Katrina scenarios after our future earthquakes/volcanoes/hurricanes/tornadoes/you name the disaster? We know these things are on the way, which is why I'm so worried...
So back to no "I" in "Japan." The recurring reminder in every news report and video clip coming out of Sendai is that every survivor, every aid worker, and everyone cleaning up is "working for the greater good." A survivor being interviewed on NHK (Japanese t.v. network) today stated "we all have to help each other. What else can we do?" I guess no one has suggested looting or brandishing arms to her yet.
We've got it in us to pull together, and our history proves it. Maybe we should remind ourselves of that more often, and add some extra patience, common sense and brotherly kindness to our 72 hour emergency kits.
Kudos to the Japanese. I just hope folks over here are paying attention.
* Unless of course you are writing "Nihon" or "Nippon." Then again, in the Japanese alphabet there is no letter "i." Whatever. Just go with me on this.