March 16, 2011

Crisis in Japan

I was moments away from purchasing plane tickets to visit my big brother and sister-in-law JC in Japan when news of the earthquake and tsunami arrived. Big Brother and JC live in Okinawa, where Big Bro is an officer in the Air Force. We were so looking forward to seeing them and getting to experience such a foreign place with our family, who we miss very much after their move across the world. Our plan was to start in Tokyo and wander around a bit, probably to Kyoto, possibly to Nara, and then arrive in Okinawa just as BB and JC got back from their own tour of the mainland. Of course that has all changed.

Normally when such disasters happen I watch the news and my heart breaks for the people in the disaster zone, but there’s a certain remove. The people are so far away, in a place I’ve never been, and after I shut off the TV the news doesn’t stay at the forefront of my mind. This time, however, my family is there. And while they’re hundreds of miles southwest of the epicenter of the earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (thank God), the deteriorating conditions there are frightening, and I’d rather that they be much farther way than they are. I cannot stop watching the news coverage and thinking about them.

So I’m learning a lot these days about how nuclear power plants function, as I'm sure you are too, and about the Japanese people and their remarkable dignity in the face of such devastation and looming catastrophe. There is a word for this, I learned today: gaman. “Gaman is a Japanese word for endurance with grace and dignity in the face of what seems unbearable.” There is no rioting, no fights, no apparent panic or chaos. I am learning so much about the Japanese during this crisis, and I am in such awe, and have such a respect for them, for their gaman in response to what they must now endure, the extent of which is still unknown, but looking grimmer by the day. People have lost their families and their homes, their workplaces. Many of them have nowhere to go, and do not know what to do. And then there are the people as far away as Tokyo, who have to face the decision of whether to leave their homes, bring their children to a safer place, or stay, iodine pills on hand, and hope that the government is watching out for them, telling them everything they need to know to make an informed decision, not waiting until it's too late for them to escape.

If it were me, I’d take my gaman, iodine pills, personal radiation detector, and a suitcase full of the things I couldn’t bear to lose and go on a long vacation and hope for the best but plan for the worst. But where can they go? Japan is not a huge island, and they can’t just hop in a car and drive to the next country over, leaving their jobs and all their possessions, not knowing whether they’ll ever be able to return.

They’re saying on CNN that people have not been donating as much to Japan during this crisis as to other recent disaster zones elsewhere. Apparently in the first four days after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and after the earthquake in Haiti, much more money had been raised for disaster relief, probably because Japan is an industrialized country, and we think that they can afford to take care of their people. But the government has its hands full right now, and the Red Cross and other non-profits can get in there and make a real difference. Let's all give if we can, and pray if we can’t.

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