Taking Japan Personally


My friend’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “You’re going back? What?! Why?”

She turned to her new husband, her eyes twinkling, her voice teasing. “Japan is Elicia’s Israel,” she said. By which she meant, Japan is Elicia’s homeland. By which she meant: how absurd.

That conversation took place more than 15 years ago, before the second of my long stints in Tokyo, at a time when I believed my heart would belong to many countries in the course of my life, at a time when I imagined that my wanderlust would one day need to be tempered, but never understood how parenthood would quash it entirely. I don’t know how I answered, but I do recall my indignation.

But the irony is this: She was right. Just as I freeze when I read of a bombing in Jerusalem, just as I laugh knowingly at a story of nosey, noisy pedestrians in Tel Aviv, so too does my love extend to the inhabitants of another land, one that was my home for 2 ½ years in the early 1990s. It is country where picnickers would silently pack up when a sweet jingle signaled the closing of an urban garden at dusk; a culture where elderly women would shyly sidle up beside me in a rainstorm to check if I needed cover; a place where street vendors chanted about their hot sweet potatoes for sale, about their “yaki-imo,” stretching the word out in a lulling sing-song.

And so it is that I spent much of mid-March in tears.

“You’ve got to stop,” my husband told me. “Don’t read about it anymore.”

But I can’t. I can’t stop watching the video clips of the cars stalling as they confront the sudden deluge of waves, the sirens wailing, the emergency warnings in Japanese as polite as an airport announcement. I read about the middle school student who would never turn up at his graduation; of the radiation seeping ominously into drinking water hundreds of kilometers away; of the death toll rising and rising and rising.

In my friend Avi Landau’s blog, I read about life far beyond the devastated region, where aftershocks, both physical and emotional, have continued for weeks. Avi, who lives in Tsukuba City, an hour northeast of Tokyo, writes that even after three weeks, it is a place of “hushed voices, grim expressions, dimmed lights, and plenty of sobriety. Concerts, exhibitions, shows, lectures, parties and other events have been put off.” Avi, whose two young children fled the region with his wife in the days following the quake, says that there will be no seder in Tsukuba this year. He’s leaving town with his family, coming to New York.

When I explain the crisis to my own children at Shabbat dinner one night, my son Joel, who is 6, listens with concern. He analyzes: the first two problems have finished, but the third one — the nuclear one — continues on and on. “What can we do?” he asks.

I don’t know how to answer, other than making a small donation to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has been working with a local Japanese organization called JEN, in coordination with the Jewish Community of Japan. The JDC has already raised $1.4 million in disaster relief.

There are other Jewish groups contributing support. Chabad-Lubavitch trucked fresh bread to several towns in the region, helping sustain more than 35,000 refugees for the last three weeks. The Israeli Defense Force has set up a field hospital in Minamisanriku, in the Miyagi Prefecture, staffed by 50 soldiers and medical personnel.

But I’m most touched when I learn about a benefit concert planned by Judah Goldman, who has spent most of the 15 years of his life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has never stepped foot in Japan but has developed such a strong passion for the culture that he centered his bar mitzvah theme on it. Together with his mother, Shira Dicker, Judah hopes to organize a concert here that brings together Japanese teen musicians and Jewish teen musicians like him. Dicker has spoken with the JDC, among other organizations, about assistance.

Dicker says that in the first nights after the disaster, she and Judah would sleep with a laptop between them. “It was almost to the point of impairing my functioning,” says Dicker. She wondered, “Why am I so consumed by this?”

In Japan, I will always be a gaijin, a foreigner who doesn’t know how low to bow, who bungles many phrases, whose movements seem overly exuberant in a culture of quiet gestures. But like Dicker, I feel bound in an inextricable, almost inexplicable manner. As she says, “These are my people. These are my kin.”

Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month.