“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” -Rabbi Hillel
As you all know, it has been one week since the devastating earthquake first struck Japan. And the damage is simply horrific.
The death toll is in the thousands (if not the tens of thousands), there are hundreds of aftershocks still ongoing, and over 350,000 people have been displaced from their homes. National geographic has some heartbreaking pictures here.
And although I haven’t asked it of you in years, my dear readers, I am asking you now to join with me and help the victims of this horrific natural disaster.
There is no song this weekend, no clever or fun diversion for you, just a moment of silence for those suffering, and a small list of charitable organizations I know of that are doing all they can to help with earthquake and tsunami relief:
- Peace Winds Japan, one of the best relief organizations anywhere in the world (I donated through MercyCorps, where my students have set up a donation site),
- Doctors Without Borders, and
- The Japanese, American, and International Red Crosses.
I’ve donated $100 to Peace Winds Japan, and I encourage all of you to donate something — including anyplace you like that isn’t listed — as well. We’re all in this together, and when something uncontrollable like this happens, it’s up to all of us to help the victims recover. (Thanks to Jeff over at Dean’s Corner for starting this off.)
And I have a personal story about the one time I went to Japan (for this cosmology conference) that I’d like to share with you.
Sure, I was there for a conference, but I took an extra week off from work, bought a Japan Rail Pass, and explored as much of the island of Honshu as I could. Armed with a phrasebook, my backpack, and a guidebook, I was unsure of what I would find in a culture completely foreign to me.
And, of course, with a language completely foreign to me! Sure, I’d been to many countries in Europe, but here I was in a land with three alphabets, of which I was able to recognize about 11 Hiragana characters. It was my first time as a functional illiterate, and it was daunting. Still, I made it to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka (where my friend Ken was kind enough to show me around; hi, Ken!), the hot springs (in Hakone), as well as Miyajima and Hiroshima. And Hiroshima was by far the most impressive of these cities to me.
Because in my mind, the above photo is what Hiroshima was. I had a grandfather stationed in the South Pacific during WWII, and I was more than a little worried that I’d encounter quite a bit of anti-American sentiment there. But I wanted to go, to see the WWII memorial, and experience the rebuilt city for myself. And although I had read many things that had told me my expectations were not going to align with reality, I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of what I encountered.
An exploding megalopolis! With millions of people, Hiroshima is the epitome of a modern city in Japan. And I was determined to go see the memorial. But, unsurprisingly, with just a guidebook and a feeble grasp of the language, I was… shall we say, having difficulties. After stopping near a street corner and looking puzzled, an older gentleman (he must have been in his 60s) came up to me and gestured his willingness to help.
I decided to go for it, and asked him (in Japanese) if he spoke English, and of course the answer was no. So, in my broken Japanese, I told him what’s probably the equivalent of, “I go to war memorial. How I go?” As he started to answer, we both realized I’d have no chance at understanding the answer. What happened next was absolutely amazing.
He made the “one minute” gesture to me with his hand, turned his back to me, and ran — at a full sprint — towards the far corner of the block. He turned a hard left, and disappeared. Puzzled but optimistic, I waited. And about 45 seconds later, he returned, still at a full sprint, holding something in his right hand. When he reached me, out of breath, he showed me what he had.
It was a map of Hiroshima! And much larger and more detailed than the rinky-dink one above, too; it was about the size of a large window! He unfolded it in front of me, and then whipped out a green highlighter. He circled where we were, circled where the war memorial was, and drew a path for me to take to get there. And then, like it was nothing, simply gave me the map.
I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t imagine anything like this ever happening to a foreigner in the United States — especially one who didn’t speak but a few words of the native language — anywhere I’ve ever lived. So I did the one thing I could think of to thank him: I asked him if the building we were outside was his hotel, and he said yes. So I rented a room from him, and was never so happy to say thank you as I was to pay for that room.
(Of course, while I was in Hiroshima, I also got to learn about Sadako Sasaki and the paper cranes, a heartbreaking and beautiful story, and broke down into tears while reading and learning about the aftermath of the atomic bomb, and its effects on the citizens of Hiroshima and of Japan in general, while inside the museum.)
But that story — the story of the kindness of a stranger to a foreigner — is one that goes beyond politics, beyond national borders, and made me proud to simply be human. And I can think of no better way to end this than to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
That’s my Japan story. We are all in this together, and now is the time for us to come to the aid of a great nation facing one of its greatest challenges. Thank you, Japan, for being wonderful, and here’s wishing everyone affected by the earthquake a safe and speedy recovery. Let’s give them the best support the world has to offer!