A Great Karma Story

CI squinted at the parking meter machine in front of me. All I had to do was put money in, tell it how long I wanted on the meter, and it would spit out the proper receipt for me to place on my windshield. The October morning sun lay out over the car and glinted in the windows of the tall buildings in a way that told me the car would be in the shade shortly.

Just as I put the ticket under my windshield wiper, I looked back and saw a man walking toward me. This was a city – Baltimore; there were a lot of people walking toward and away from me, but this guy was headed on a beeline right for me. I wasn’t really worried.  It was a crowded street in broad daylight. But I didn’t have any idea what he could want from me.  He was a big guy, tall and broad, with a deep chocolate complexion and a wide mouth full of teeth – one of them large and gold.  I only noticed his teeth because he was smiling.

He held out something in his palm. “Hey,” he said, “I just donated to cancer research over there.” He indicated down the street with his head. “I got this pink bracelet. You’re kinda cute. Do you want it?”

It took me a minute to catch my breath as I looked at the standard-issue pink, rubber bracelet in his hand. Who was this guy? “You know,” I said slowly, “I have cancer.”

“You’re kidding me!” he exclaimed, his palm still outstretched.

I shook my head. “It’s true. I just finished my last treatment and hopefully I’ll find out soon that I’m well again.”

“Then you have to take this bracelet,” he said, putting it into my hand, which I had put out.

“I will,” I said, nodding. “I’ll take all the good karma I can get.”

He shook his head a little. “This is so cool. Hey, you have a good day.”

“You just did your good deed of the day,” I told him, “I hope you have a great one too.”

“I will,” he assured me. The guy grinned even more broadly and continued on his way up the street.

I was headed in the opposite direction from him and grinning, too, as I clutched my pink bracelet tightly.  I might have been skipping instead of walking as I thanked the universe for thinking of me.

Education – A Privilege

AUW logo with white backgroundYesterday the Japan Support Group for the Asian University for Women (AUW) held a film screening to benefit the university.  The film, a PBS documentary, “Peace Unveiled” which is part of the series “Women, War and Peace” showed how women are fighting to have a voice in the politics against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  It is the exemplary work of filmmaker Abigail Disney and it reaffirms the commitment of American Public Broadcasting to bring the issues to the community.

The stars of the day, however, were the two young women, second-year-students at AUW, who flew from Chitagong, Bangladesh to be with us.  They, along with the vice-Chancellor of the university, Dr. Fahima Aziz, talked about the school, the opportunities it offers and truly gave the audience a taste of the bravery it takes to commit to an education outside of one’s home country when gender issues are rife in the area of the world from which they hail.  One of the girls is from Afghanistan, and she talked about the opportunity to learn as well as the very political and strong act of writing. Writing one’s story, she said, is as important as getting into politics. She, who essentially fled the Taliban and grew up in a refugee camp, has discovered her voice.   The other young woman is from Nepal.  She talked about learning not only the lessons her wonderful, international teachers teach her, but also about finding herself and being a role model for the girls of her home village.

Dr. Aziz, committed fully to the needs of these young women, spoke passionately about the students, their abilities and their hard work. From her I heard how every day is something new and different – these girls  appreciate everything they see and have and do. She talked about the girls’ internships, learning experiences, and leadership. They all have such very bright futures.

The entire afternoon was an inspiration.

My children were in the audience, and later, we were able to talk about how lucky they are to have the opportunity to go to such wonderful schools in Tokyo now, and the presumed university educations in their future.  Education is something to appreciate, not take for granted.

Thank you AUW, Dr. Aziz, Raihana and Rasani for being an inspiration to us all.

The Second Anniversary of The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

charmworks1It seems like the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 was a long time ago, and chronologically, I guess it was.  Here in Japan, however, the events of the day are still in the front of our minds, brought to the fore with just the slightest whiff of reminder.  Many people across the country are still affected by the events of the day, and many people are still working hard to repair and rebuild those affected areas, as they will be doing for a long time to come, still.

One such young woman who is working on rebuilding is Sohpia Slater.  I had the privilege of interviewing her recently and she speaks with the wisdom and foresight of someone well beyond her years.  Sophia is sixteen and a junior at the American School in Japan.  She started the charity “Charmworks” that you can find here.  Twice a month, she and various people around Tokyo get together to paint charms made from the roof tiles salvaged from a fishing village in the Tohoku region called Funakoshi.

You can read more about my talk with the delightful Ms. Slater on the site A Hopeful Sign.  All money she receives from charmworks2the sale of the charms goes back to the people of Funakoshi so they can rebuild their industry and lives.

As a note, in addition to starting Charmworks and being a good student, Ms. Slater is a rather insightful young lady.  She has a lot of good ideas about the notion of recovery as it encompasses both physical and emotional healing, and how the two go hand in hand.  You can read more about that in her blog posting in the Huffington Post.

The young Ms. Slater’s work is one example of the dedicated men and women across Japan who are working to rebuild the once beautiful seaside towns in the Tohoku region.  Please consider buying a charm from her, or continuing to support Japan in some way.  We live in a 24-hour news cycle these days, and one crisis tends to give way to the next.  But people continue to suffer long after the reporters are gone and the initial sensation is over.  We should always remember.


Multicultural Parties for Kids

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Right after the war, in 1945, a Jewish man named Ernie Solomon started an orphanage in Japan.  He had escaped Eastern Europe and came through Japan, living most of the rest of his life in Tokyo.  He saw a need for care for children who had lost their parents during the war, and he made it happen.  He and his family have supported the Wakabaryo orphanage ever since its inception.  A man with strong Jewish roots, Ernie always arranged for the Jewish Community of Japan to have a joint holiday party with the orphans and the children of the JCJ.  Ernie passed away two years ago, but the tradition continues.  This year, I had the opportunity to go to the orphanage with my children and it was a joyous holiday experience for everyone.

Everyone at Wakabaryo was truly excited to see the group of five adults (including the rabbi) and the ten kids who arrived around 6pm.  Like everywhere traditionally Japanese, we were instructed to first remove our shoes then go upstairs to the party room.  In the room stood about 30 young people and ten or so staff waiting to welcome us.  The tables were laden with cakes and other sweets and not one of the children, from the youngest (age 1 or so) to the teenagers touched any of it.  There were a few speeches welcoming us, and then a rousing rendition of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer in Japanese.  They asked each of our kids to introduce themselves, which they did in proper Japanese.  But for four of the Jewish kids, ours were not Japanese speakers, but they all take Japanese lessons, so they were able to tell everyone their names and ages in Japanese.  Then we got to eat the sweets.  Our kids really tried hard to interact with the Japanese kids.  Once again, I learned the lesson that silliness among children has no language barriers.

After eating, we cleared the tables and moved them out of the room so everyone could sit down and play the dreidel game.  It was 2012-12-06 07.09.10great fun to teach these kids about the game and its meaning – all in Japanese.  There were shrieks of laughter and even some boo-ing as the kids enjoyed the game together. Mr. Solomon’s widow gave each child a small gift and the children presented our JCJ kids with a small gift as well.  After a group picture, it was time for us to leave.

Those Japanese youngsters were so appreciative that they formed a line down the stairs and out the door to see us off properly.  There were shouts of “sayonara!” and even “see you!” from a few of the kids.  It was hard to leave.

The experience awed my own children.  It inspired feelings of gratitude and appreciation for all of their many gifts, including the large family that loves them so well.  But it also reminded them, as it did for me, that children are children, and games and celebrations transcend language and culture.  Add in holidays and special sweets, and there’s a recipe for instant friendship.  I hope this is the first of many visits.

Visas For Life – A Special Concert from the Israeli Embassy

On Tuesday night I had the privilege of attending a concert put on by the Embassy of Israel in Japan.  It was titled “Visas for Life” and dedicated to the work and the memory of Chiune Sugihara, who wrote transit visas in Lithuania during WWII to save thousands of Jews.  The embassy organized the concert as part of its year of celebrations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel.

In case you don’t know, Chiune Sugihara is a Jewish hero.  A gifted linguist, he was the Japanese consul to Lithuania during the war. The Japanese government has expressly forbid him to write visas to help Jews and he did it anyway to save the thousands and thousands of Jews who were fleeing Hitler’s wrath in Eastern Europe.  He wrote transit visas so the Jews could get on the trans-Siberian railway across Russia, then take a ship to Japan, where they could then get to an island called Curacao, which did not require entry visas.  Some made it all the way, and some ended up staying in the port city of Kobe, Japan.  Sugihara was moved by the crowds of hungry, dirty Jews who congregated outside of his door at the consul’s residence to beg for help.  In the end, he had to retire from the Japanese foreign service in disgrace because he had defied his government, but he always maintained that he did the right thing and refused to be seen as a hero.  He would tell people that anyone would do the same.  Most people beg to differ; there were a lot of people who turned a blind eye to the suffering, but not Sugihara.  He is the only Japanese person with a tree planted in his honor at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, in Israel.

The first half of this concert was a re-telling of the Sugihara story set to music.  There was a seven-piece orchestra playing music specifically designed by the writer of the story.  It was touching and beautiful, moving many to tears.  Even in the English translations, the words put together a scenario of both despair and hope that lifted the spirit in the end.

The audience got to hear a real treat for the second half of the concert: pieces played by pianist Sasha Toperich from Sarajevo and Japanese violinist Eijin Nimura.  Both men, in addition to being exquisite musicians, are Unesco Ambassadors for Peace, which means they are using their talents to further diplomacy between nations, a worthy goal. (Please click on their links to see their websites and hear some of their music)

Toperich played two solo pieces, one a vibrant wonderment by A.I. Khachaturian where the pianist’s fingers moved across and back on the keyboard at the speed of light, followed only by his head and flop of rich, black hair.  The second was a lilting and familiar Chopin Nocturne.

Nimura’s solo piece was a few minutes of artistic magic and majesty.  He played a Paganini opus, and I truly didn’t know a violin could be played or sound like that.  The pizzicato with the left hand while bowing with the right left the listener bewildered and mesmerized.  It was a force to be be reckoned with.

When the two men played together, the concert hall was electrified.  They played, in a nod to the Israeli contingent, Bloch’s “Nigun No. 2 from Ba’al Shem Tov” and then a Brahms piece.  The two masters, together, created an atmosphere of rich excitement and there wasn’t a person in the hall who wasn’t rapt with attention.  It was an unbelievable pairing of talent, and afterward, they each bowed to the other.

After the Israeli Ambassador, a wonderful man named Nissim Ben Shitrit, who is talented in oratory and diplomatic arts,  gave Nimura a certificate of Cultural Ambassadorship from Israel, the two artists played a beautiful encore.

All of the artists from the evening greeted guests in the lobby after the concert, and asked for donations for Tohoku, the perfect ending to a delightful evening.  Everyone clearly gave generously, uplifted by the heights of the evening.

Such, as they say, is the power of music.  I was privileged to be a part of it.

A Special Evening at the British Ambassador’s Residence – for Tohoku

 The woman from Ishinomaki, in the Tohoku region of Japan, spoke with passion about the day, just one year ago, that a powerful tsunami, spawned from a powerful earthquake, changed the landscape of her life, both literally and figuratively.  Using spare words, she spoke of the rising waters, the running, the devastation and then the despair.  Her audience, a group of dedicated men and women who gathered at the British Ambassador’s residence in Tokyo, made no move to check their tears.  The event, designed to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, was also a celebration of life. The people present had donated countless hours of physical labor for clean-up, and money to the British Chamber of Commerce’s (BCC) Back to Business (B2B) program which was started a year ago to fulfill needs of the people affected by the natural disasters.  Indeed, the woman from Ishinomaki told of how she learned to have hope again when she met the executive director of the BCC, Lori Henderson, and together they found ways to rebuild the community.  Under Ms. Henderson’s guidance, the B2B program has donated practical items such an industrial freezer to a fisherman so his catch can once again be preserved and sent to market, or tractors to help revive the once-thriving strawberry industry of the area.  These are necessary items for rebuilding business for people who lost everything, including the tools for their trades. The donations from individuals and companies have been generous and continuous since the disasters.  Another visitor from Tohoku who came down from her hometown to participate in the evening said that the generosity of not just the Japanese, but the foreign community, has been breathtaking in its expansiveness.  A man who is a principal of a junior high school in the affected areas spoke of the destruction of his home and living in his workplace, which was turned into a shelter.  There were pictures of the B2B initiatives including the British Ambassador, Sir David Warren, in his coveralls setting to work.

It was an example I will not soon forget.  The British people living in Japan, like so many other communities here, came together to help those affected by the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and they understand that just because a year has passed, the need for help is still great.  The event I attended raised a further 3.5 million yen for the B2B program.  I was so grateful to be a part of the special evening, which of course included wonderful food, wines, and even a song debut by Nick Wood and Julian Lennon, the proceeds from which go directly to charity.  But more than what was physically there at the ambassador’s residence, was the feeling present in every attendee: hope.  Pride.  The promise of the future.  The beauty of Japan these days encapsulated in one room – full of non-Japanese people who believe passionately in the possibilities of that future and who actively work to ensure it.

Reconstructing 3/11

No one can see into the future, but certainly some people are more adept at analysis and prediction than others.  To that end, there is a special book that has just come out for the first anniversary of the disasters and I would urge you to get your copy now.  This is not a book of quake or tsunami experiences.  This is a book comprised of pieces by journalists on various aspects of the disaster, recovery and reconstruction efforts.  What is happening now in Japan? What may happen as a result of the nuclear crisis in the country?  What about the economy?  How is the clean-up really going?  What are the people thinking?  If you have any of those questions, then this book is for you.  You can download it here for your Kindle, and if you do not have a Kindle, you can get a free Kindle-reading-app for your computer.  If you buy one book of analysis of the country one year later, this should be it.  The hard-nosed journalism mixed with the appropriate amounts of compassion and skepticism make this book real and believable.  Some of the proceeds go to support various charities, but regardless, you want to own this book. At $2.99, it’s worth every penny.

For those of us who live and work in Japan, the specter of the Great Tohoku Earthquake is never really off of our minds, even now, one year later.  We lived through it; we continue to have contact with the effects of it; and we are living in a world where everything is divided into “before” and “after” March 11th.  Earthquake drills at schools take on new meanings. Earthquake kits have been beefed up and put in more accessible spots. More furniture is now bolted to the walls.  And as one major after-affect, the closets of every single person I know have been cleaned out more than once so any extra things that we were hanging on to will go to good use for those people up north who lost everything – clothes, kitchen items, bedding, everything.  Japan did not have a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGO) before the quake – the government was always able to take care of everything.  But this was just too huge and people genuinely wanted to help in various ways.  There are tons of new charities around Japan that help with everything from simple financial assistance to bicycle donation to fresh food deliveries to areas where the soil is no longer viable due to radiation concerns from the Fukushima nuclear reactor.  Understand us.  Buy the book.


Aiding Tohoku for the Holidays

Unloading a Second Harvest truck in Ishinomaki, Japan (courtesy of Second Harvest)

This past Sunday, my kids and I went over to the Jewish Community of Japan (JCJ), where we belong and the kids go to Hebrew school, and we participated in the adopt-a-family program from Second Harvest, Japan.  It was a wonderful experience in community and helping others for both of my children, and of course for me.

Second Harvest is a charity created in 2000 by a collaborative of food banks in Tokyo with a mission to collect food that would essentially go to waste from various venues around the city, and get it to people who would otherwise go hungry.  Ergo the name: if the first harvest is the commercial preparation of the food, then this is the second harvest.

Since the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011, Second Harvest has taken on another role: disaster relief.  They have delivered literally tons of food to the disaster-stricken areas in northern Japan.  Here is an excerpt from their most recent blog post: After eight months since the disaster, most debris has been cleared, and disaster areas are relatively clean now. More and more stores are reopened, and local people can enjoy shopping. But in areas devastated by the tsunami, local businesses have not recovered yet. Survivors there have difficulties in going for shopping without cars or bicycles. Furthermore, many people have lost their jobs. Food supplies for them are still strongly needed. 2HJ wishes to ask for your unfailing support so we can continue to provide relief supplies for survivors until they rebuild their lives and stand on their feet.

The latest project from Second Harvest is to partner with schools and other organizations for an adopt-a-family program.  The JCJ asked their membership if they would like to adopt a family and then registered with Second Harvest for those families.  In return, the JCJ received specific instructions on how to pack a box of supplies for the families.  The boxes had to include staples of Japanese life: rice, dashi-stock, mirin, soy sauce, and seaweed.  (Those are clearly not American staples, but they are Japanese staples)  The JCJ members were told exactly how many people they were feeding and their approximate ages so we could include small presents if we had space and weight.  It was crucial that no box be over twenty kilograms.

The family for whom my kids and I packed the box was just three adults.  I went to a shop and bought hats and neck-warmers for all three of them – choosing items that were useful, but adding little weight or space.

It took us just minutes to put all of the items we bought into the box, label it with the correct number to reach the right family, and then tape it up for delivery.  My daughter and son wrote a note to enclose.  The kids didn’t talk while they packed, but we had talked plenty about the people less fortunate than we were with the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  Our talk featured a large dose of gratitude, to which the children were particularly receptive.

The high school where I teach is doing the same program and will be packing boxes for Second Harvest next week.  And so the lessons will continue.

There was such a joyous, yet somber feeling at the JCJ as all the children packed.  In all, there were 35 boxes done that day.  The kids all feel the value of giving to others – and doing it for people in the country in which they live, especially for those who did not fare as well as they did on that fateful day last March.

A special thank-you to Second Harvest and to the JCJ for making it happen.  Please see the Second Harvest website for information on how to donate to this wonderful cause.  Help is still needed and gratefully accepted.