Wednesday, March 16, 2011

All Things Japanese


The world is watching all things Japanese these days. If the nuclear radiation worsens, it seems as if we'll remember the events of March, 2011 for the meltdowns, rather than the Tsunami. Like others, the minute I saw the videos and the photographs, the minute I heard the voices that told the stories...In that moment in time, I thought of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even if the nuclear reactors were safe I'd have thought the same. The devastation is similar. So too is the massive dignity of the Japanese people.
I sense that scientists and geologists will learn a good deal from these events. So will anyone who follows the story. That story is one of heroism, stoicism, discipline, and always hard, hard, work.
My best friend in high school, Tomio Nishimura, first showed me those values. Like me, he was soft spoken but passionate about learning and living. It wasn't until I had studied history at the University of California that I learned of the Japanese American experience during World War II. I guess the political uprising of the 1960s was necessary before high school textbooks were ready to tell the whole story. Hard to believe, but throughout my entire friendship with Tomio and the other Japanese-Americans in my high school class, I never knew that their parents and grandparents had been interred in those "camps." It wasn't taught, and they never spoke about it.
By the time I had learned ALL about American history, and began to teach it, a few things clicked in. I learned about the cultural values that make Japan a strong nation and that Japanese people here and there, in Japan, often use to guide their lives. I could list a string of adjectives or "isms" but a better way would be to look at how the Japanese people are responding to this current tragedy.
First of all, it's an ancient culture. That means there is tradition, there are roots that go deep; and even though they may have been undermined by a Tsunami, this is a nation that will survive. If, as the only country to be the recipient of two atomic bombs, they survived in the past, they will survive now. Reporters and journalists are astonished by the lack of looting and the calm demeanor of the people as they attempt to gain some measure of control on all that has been destroyed. This too is something Japanese. It is a reminder that even if tragedy brings out the worst in nature and people, it can also bring out the best. Sometimes one inspiring story is enough to want to continue on.
Over the years I have allowed myself to learn from my Japanese students and colleagues. They have helped me keep perspective when my inclination would be to become overcome either by fear, anxiety, anger, or depression. It was with Dina Murakawa, a former student and friend that I first started an Amnesty International student group. That group has survived long after we both moved on with our lives. It was with colleagues Jan Matsuoka and Carol Tateishi from The Bay Area Writing Project that I first learned to question my practice, value social conventions like bringing a gift to social occasions ("It's so Japanese," Jan would say as she asked us to stop at a store many times. "I just have to do it, I can't help it.") and consider the difficult question of asking all my students to speak in class.
So now, in these difficult days, I wish to play the role of student because I know there is much more to learn. If/when I meet with my student teachers I'm sure the topic of helping young people understand these historic days will come up. I will encourage them to begin by understanding all things Japanese.

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