This is a guest note by Lawrence Wilkerson, a Visiting Professor at the College of William and Mary. Wilkerson served 31 years in the US Army, much of that time in the Pacific.
A Cold Rain Starting?
by Lawrence Wilkerson*
In Sendai in 1985 for exercise Yama Sakura, I and my contingent of about 400 soldiers were met in the heavily snow-covered streets by the mayor of the city and a wonderful band that played the Star Spangled Banner while standing stoically in the gently falling snow, illuminated beautifully by the soft street lights. This was quite an exceptional reception, particularly since it was after darkness, the weather was so inclement, and we were late arriving–as usual with enterprises covering thousands of air and bus miles.
I had come to Sendai as the tactical and exercise leader of the 25th Infantry Division’s troop element from Schofield Barracks, on the island of Oahu in the state of Hawai’i. We were told upon arrival by the mayor of Sendai that we were the first American troops in his fair city since 1947 and the Occupation.
In the weeks that followed, I developed a warm affection for the city and the surrounding area–particularly the close-by seashore and its fishermen, nets, boats, and sometimes quaint and ancient ways, and the pine groves of Matsushima’s many little photo-perfect islands. So did my soldiers. They loved especially the Kirin beer brewery that was nearby and opened its doors for tours and, of course, free samples of its excellent rice-based beverage. But most of all we fell in love with the people.
Imagine, then, the agony that ripped my heart as I watched the scenes unfold of the recent earthquake and tsunami and their devastating impact on Sendai and, more so, Miyagi Prefecture and surrounding areas. Indeed, such scenes continue to unfold vividly depicting the turmoil and devastation in the prefecture and in an increasingly wider area because of the deteriorating state of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.
As in so many cases of adversity for the Japanese people however, their underlying character is something to behold. In 1985, I marveled at their warmth, friendship and courtesy toward soldiers utterly foreign to them–including even one JGSDF lieutenant colonel who invited me and my officers to his home for a superb Japanese dinner and then, in violation of all protocol at the time, asked us to stay beyond 9PM (the end-all-festivities time for all Japanese entertaining foreigners in their homes) and–even more stunning–broke open a basket-bottle of his best cold saki and shared it with us. We discussed in some passion the 1941-45 war, Japan’s loss therein, and the colonel’s personal chagrin over it.
This was, to say the very least, a remarkable conversation that ended only at midnight, as the colonel waved us all good-bye as we trundled through the snow back to our quarters.
Today, I marvel even more at this remarkable character of the Japanese.
To receive e-mail reports of the devastation and death, to talk to old friends about it, to see the scenes on the television news, all conjure the past to be sure–and bring tears too. But more than anything else, what I see gleaming through all the wreckage is the character, solid, unwavering, disciplined and true, of the Japanese people–especially these people of the north country. Call it what you will, they are special.
It’s not simply the almost total lack of things we always encounter in the west in the midst of such disaster–looting, greed, selfishness, beggar-thy-neighbor actions, military forces needed for security often as much as aid–it’s the genuine humility and kindness of it all.
Whether parceling out minimal food supplies, brewing tea on the sidelines for all and sundry, refusing payment for desperately-needed items, or declining to raise prices in an emergency, or simply standing quietly in line to await a turn, these people are the model for the world. And it is not necessarily a model of meekness for I have seen and experienced the fierce warrior-spirit that can kindle an intense flame among even the best of them. It is rather a grip on life and death that, for example, Socrates had through his intellect that the Japanese seem to have through their character.
Much discussion has occurred over the past week or so with regard to what these multiple disasters mean for Japan’s future. Experts aplenty have opined to me that Japan’s troubles are so legion–an aging population with no expectation of change, a floundering economy, a record-low personal savings rate coupled with enormous debt owned principally by those persons, an age-old consensus of doom, you name it and I have likely heard it–that there is no way the country will bounce back soon, if ever. China, they contend, looms so largely that Japan will be dwarfed, only now more swiftly.
(Curiously, however, some of the wisest, most subdued, incredibly empathetic commentary is coming out of China now, a clear sign that perhaps the concept of being a responsible regional stakeholder is taking some grip in Beijing and elsewhere.)
I disagree of course with all such expert commentary about Japan’s demise. I do not know how they will do it, but I know they will do it. The Japanese will rise from this terrible tragedy and be whole again. That little island nation will be back, showing all the rest of us what its people are capable of–not only peace and prosperity but exceptionally high character, character that many of us would do well to study and try to emulate.
Matsuo Basho, perhaps the grandmaster of the haiku, wrote one such poem usually translated something like this:
A cold rain starting
And no hat —
As usual with Basho and the style of the 17-syllable haiku, there is so much contained in so little. A cold rain has indeed started all over Japan and most people would be expected to retreat, go indoors, seek shelter, get out of the weather, particularly those without a hat or umbrella. Not the Japanese. They simply answer: “So?” and then, even before the rain stops and the sun returns, move on to rebuild. More power to them.
— Lawrence Wilkerson