Saturday, March 12, 2011


The Nihon no Kokki, the flag of Japan, has been tragically dragged well below half-staff, if not dragged out to sea, by March 11, 2011's incomprehensible devastation. The 8.9 magnitude earthquake and following tsunami has wiped so much of the landscape aside, like the grotesque arm of a very unfunny Godzilla. That iconic monster from Japan's pop culture library probably came to be partly from the very real and vivid forces of nature that Japan for so long has known too well. Typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis.

   As a child watching that monster, I was torn between comic disbelief at its jerky stop-action movements, and a gut level fear of the idea that such a terror could roam a landscape. Arcing power lines, toppling buildings, crumbling mountains, even wielding atomic breath and radiation. Yet when the show ended, the world away from the television was still right side up; the terror was only a product of theatrics and imagination. One could wish this were so this week-- that the science-fiction, now fact, could be made unreal.

  I've long had an admiration for Japan's people and culture.  I've never been there, but I grew up on Pacific islands with asian classmates, many of whom were straddling two worlds of language and culture. When I would leave school for the afternoon, it meant a couple of hours of recreation before tackling some modest homework.  For many of my friends, however, it meant even more school hours, where they learned the language of their parents and preserved genteel customs and rituals of a rich civilization. Being around the Japanese culture meant opportunities to enjoy different foods, elaborate tea ceremonies, meeting elegant elders who bowed graciously and had a humility rarely seen. I was exposed to various high arts; from woodworking, to paper and printmaking, the cultivation of bonsai, raising esteemed carp or "koi," and the succinct art of Haiku poetry. The physical grace and discipline of Judo martial arts. These things are  just a very small part of their artful civilization.

  The disciplined resilience of the Japanese is astounding, without dispute. Their technological prowess and rich contributions to modern engineering are made more admirable by the commitment to employ such tools to protect and enhance the quality of life for the people, even if at a high economic cost. A cost that many modern societies would refuse to accept. It has made a difference in the degree of survival, but cruelly, nothing in man's technological toolbox could entirely mitigate such a destructive force as we've just seen.

   I'm proud to display Japan's flag, though I'm decidedly not a nationalist. I'm someone who is uneasy at seeing gratuitous displays of national symbols. Symbolism for me speaks more loudly when we remember that we can gather our identities and motivations under something like a flag, yet we do well to do it respectfully, and to cultivate tolerance amidst a sea of nationalistic symbols. Driving around with your country's flag billowing from your truck, is no guarantee of your patriotism. That I display the flag of my own country from my porch during the summer, is also no guarantee. It may sound cliché, but around the world, we are all one. We may not be the same, but a common bond unites us all, whether we fully understand that or not. Today I display Japan's flag for its symbolism of the people now under assault from the trembling earth and the swallowing sea.

  The news coverage is heartbreaking, mesmerizing, chilling.  An older 'Oma,' was seen crying in view of a journalist's camera, "Japan good people. Japan polite people..." --as if to question why or how such a terrible thing could befall the populace of her country.  The adage, "there but for the grace of god, go I," has to loom large for any feeling observer. This is where we can feel our commonality, our ties to one another.  It is heartening to see the global sympathy and efforts to help from far away strangers. The feeling of helplessness and dismay can only be allayed by trying to help.