Ten days in Japan

I went to Japan on a journalists’ exchange and ran into that nation’s emotional equivalent of our 9/11.

You remember the initial horror, the denial that what you were seeing really could be happening. Disbelief turned to numb acceptance with video replays that would no longer allow us to deny the truth. Then came tears for the human tragedies unfolding before our eyes, parents searching for their children, husbands searching for their wives, holding up signs and photos in desperate hope. We allowed our hearts much longer than common sense normally reigns, to believe that maybe, just maybe, the missing would turn up in a miracle save.

And then came the anger. For this nation, it mostly turned outward, sometimes in unfair fashion toward an entire religion when truly, a few extremists had stolen our innocence. For Japan, a normally stoic citizenry now reels in despair from the triple threat of earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear calamity. Their anger turns toward distrust of their own government efforts and its disclosure of the true threat.

These are the images I carry back to the United States after ten days in Japan. The journey began as a personal and professional adventure, representing the Society of Professional Journalists in an East-West Center program that sent six American journalists to Japan while six Japanese journalists travelled our nation.

The quake and tsunami hit on our fifth day. We had just left Tokyo and were sitting at Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa getting a briefing from colonels representing various service branches when their cell phones started ringing. I listened as one organized a mass evacuation of Okinawa’s shoreline; a tsunami was heading our way. He connected me with an oceanographer on base tracking the earth’s movements. I watched in real time as helicopter and satellite shots showed the tsunami offshore heading to land, a huge wall of water like some movie version of the real threat, moving slowly, ominously.

That’s when the gospel I’ve been preaching about the new world of journalism came up and smacked me in the face. Armed with a netbook and smartphone, I posted, tweeted, wrote and skyped for the next five days. I barely slept, fueled by adrenaline and the desire for information.

More than professional challenge, I learned a lot about the Japanese people and about the common human thread that weaves us in tragedy. Beyond polite, they clung to civility long past my experience in American cities would hold for our own. But in the end, they too succumbed to the overwelming nature of this calamity. It was inevitable with hour after hour of stories like the one of the husband riding his bicycle from town to town, shelter to shelter, clutching the only photo he had left of his wife, refusing to give up hope he’d find her.

That sort of human drama needs no interpretation, not in words, not by culture. Man-made or borne of nature, tragedy makes for its own universal language.

I came to Japan to learn a different lesson than the one with which I leave. Like 9/11, these images will remain seared forever in my mind.

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