Letter from Onomichi
by Linda Ohama
January 2012, Onomichi, Japan
“Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu.”
That is what everyone is saying here, the first time they greet you in the New Year.
2011 is now behind us. The year will always be remembered as the year of the Great Tohoku Earthquake for the Japanese.
And 2012 will be a year for Japan to continue the massive clean up and rebuilding of Tohoku and Japan, and for the Tohoku people to carry on rebuilding their lives.
And they will.
After experiencing my first oshogatsu in Japan, I now understand so much more about the culture, the Japanese, myself and even Tohoku. What is the strength and joy that carries a person through time? It has been an amazing experience to feel.
A friend warned me that Christmas would not be that special here in Japan, but to watch out….because on December 26, suddenly everything would shift overnight to an exciting energy preparing for the New Year’s oshogatsu celebrations.
This is true. Christmas in Japan is not like Christmas in Canada. Yes, there are decorations and gifts for sale in the department stores and shops . . . the commercial part of the season, and the line-ups for KFC in lieu of the roast turkey or goose dinner, and the strawberry shortcake in place of fruitcake. Stockings are hung by the young people, but on the whole, Christmas is just another day in Japan as business and lives continue their normal routines.
For me, it was a time when I missed my family the most . . . but I got through it okay with the help of skype (the internet).
This photo is from my July stay in Onagawa when I was traveling through Tohoku. I camped out with the temporary tent shelter families that lost their homes to the tsunami in Onagawa. During the day, I was working with the children who painted pictures and wrote words about what they wanted to say through the cloth letters. The best part was at night when everyone went together to the portable ofuro to bath in the deep hot water. It was set up by the Jieitai: the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force. Even in the sweltering soggy heat of July when it was unbearably hot, the hot ofuro was something to look forward to. Things like that made the Tohoku people stay strong.
During my lectures at universities in Japan this year, I began to realize another thing as we often discussed Tohoku in some of the classes. Listening to the young university students’ (outside of Tohoku) concerns, most times they expressed a feeling of helplessness, even shame . . . and a deep sadness and worry. They could put their coins into the donation boxes at the convenience stores, but they still wanted to do something more.
Initiating action is not a strong point of the Japanese, including the young university students. But once an opportunity is given for them to express themselves, they go at it with all their heart and strength. This is what I realized during this past year.
During the early December lectures, we came up with a small plan for these students to take some action. The plan was to send special gift packages to young people in Tohoku for Christmas. Since the numbers for Tohoku are so large, we chose the young people of a temporary housing community from Onagawa, Miyage prefecture whose town was completely destroyed except for a few buildings on the tops of hills.
Last July, I was in Onagawa working with the young people and the Canada-Tohoku Cloth Letter project. Through a contact at the Onagawa emergency center, I was now able to get the numbers of young people for each age group beginning with 0-3 year-olds, up to 14-18 year-olds living in the temporary housing community.
I posted this information to university classes, with a list of suggested items (handmade or store bought scarves, gloves, chocolates, gum, cookies, treats), my Onomichi address as the gathering point, and a specific deadline for these things to reach me.
As the deadline approached, my living room suddenly became full of boxes and packages from students and professors from all over Japan: Tokyo, Gifu, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Kochi, and Onomichi. It was incredible what these students and teachers did.
There were over 70 scarves, with about 60 hand knit, colorful scarves (‘mufflers’ in Japanese) and the rest from Uniqulo!! (a favorite shopping place for young people). Tons of special chocolates, cookies and treats. 55 lip glosses and hand creams. It was truly amazing to see all the thoughtful gifts and messages.
As my Onomichi friends and I sat through the night in my living room, making up beautiful red ribboned gift packs, we laughed with joy as we imagined all the “Santa’s helpers” that came to be.
The next morning, three large cartons of tagged gifts were couriered to Onagawa for delivery Christmas morning (which turned out to be Christmas noon).
The card in each package was a full sheet of the many, many names and locations of everyone who was part of this little project. Just knowing the number of people and the number of places was awesome and inspiring . . . and surprising . . . this is what surprised the people in Onagawa the most!
Life is amazing. Resilient. Beautiful. Destructive. Forgiving. Simple. Strong. Fragile. Harsh. Gentle. And mostly inspiring.
Life is all these things and more.
This is what I have been learning this year in Japan.
A deep sense of peace takes over as you feel that you are one part of something much larger, as you experience the rituals and celebrations of oshogatsu. This is oshogatsu.
One ritual is to fly a kite. You work hard running against the wind to get your kite to go up in the air over and over again. Finally when it reaches high enough to just drift with a few light tugs on the string that connects it to you, there is a strange sense of peacefulness in the act. This is oshogatsu.
Happy New Year everyone.
May you also experience this feeling of peace and fulfillment.