In 2003, I had the opportunity to visit Sendai, Japan for six weeks as part of a Christian ministry project. You may or may not be pleased to learn that I spent my time there making good friends, learning about the language and culture and exploring the city rather than sharing gospel tracts. It was a city that I had never even heard of, and quite frankly probably never would have visited apart from this fairly serendipitous opportunity. However, the chance to briefly inhabit that part of the world proved to be a deeply enriching experience.
One of the best parts about my trip to Japan was the realization that the world was not such a big place… I discovered that people there, despite a wealth of cultural differences, are in many ways the same as they are here, with their own struggles with family, work, school, and so on. My Japanese friends liked the same bands, movies and philosophers I did (Radiohead, “” and Wittgenstein, respectively), although they also had lots of great film and music recommendations. (Without that trip, I never would have been exposed to X Japan or their hit “Dry Your Tears With Love.”) Subsequently, I’ve stayed in better touch with some of my Japanese friends from Sendai than many of the Canadians I went to Japan with!
In light of all that has happened in Japan this past week, I keep thinking of my experience of Sendai and the surrounding area. It’s a large city (although tiny compared to Tokyo) surrounded by hills, and only a short train ride away from tranquil Matsushima Bay. It’s known for ox-tongue (which gave me food poisoning), deep-fried tofu, and takoyaki (deep-fried balls of octopus tentacle). There are beautiful gardens, and statues commemorating samurai warrior Date Matsumune, and the Sun Mall where you can pick up something at the 99-yen store. The fact that all this destruction is happening there, in a place I have actually briefly inhabited even though it is on the other side of the world, feels very strange. Recent disasters in Haiti, Thailand and even New Zealand have seemed remote. But this is somehow more immediate, not least because of friends from Japan posting updates on Facebook about the status of their families. Despite this feeling of connection, however, the reality is that I can’t see it, can’t get a handle on the scope of the destruction… in short, watching these events on TV and websites can’t convey what it’s like to be there.
In the first few days after a massive disaster, news stations struggle with the understandable problem of a lack of footage of the actual event. (I suppose 9/11 is a notable exception.) In the case of this terrible earthquake, CNN and other news stations were showing the same video clips over and over again; in lieu of actual footage, editors fill in the gaps with “B-roll” – stock footage of Japan, the ocean, other tsunamis, earthquake equipment, etc. – trying to fill time as they wait for better images. It’s only now, a few days later, that the amateur videos, NHK coverage and aerial photos we all want to see are beginning to make their way to North America. But no matter the quantity and quality of vivid, surreal footage of the destruction we get to see, we still don’t get to experience what it was like in Sendai or along the coast during the disaster; no one shaky handheld recorder can convey the immense scope of the earth moving, but on the other hand, no panoramic aerial view of the damage can show the staggering human cost.
I am hoping that in the days ahead, this beautiful area of the world and all of the wonderful people that call it home will be able to rebuild and heal.
(Donations to aid earthquake relief are being taken by the Red Cross. Every little bit helps!)