February, 2015: Breeze Issue #88

A Free Monthly E-Newsletter for Friends of Japan & Teachers of Japanese

Samuel Russell

Brookline High School
Brookline, MA

It’s not very often that you’re given the chance to study in Japan.

When my Japanese teacher informed me of the JET Memorial Invitation Program (JET-MIP), I was both ecstatic to apply and dumbfounded by both the itinerary and the breadth of amenities and learning opportunities offered by such a trip. I was even more dumbfounded on the day in May that I received the e-mail telling me I had been accepted into the program and would be going to Japan in a month. I had never been to Japan before, let alone outside the country and I had never traveled completely alone. It would be an understatement to say I was petrified.

But, before long I had already taken the six hour flight from Boston to Los Angeles, met the other thirty-one participants, taken the eleven-hour flight to Tokyo and settled at the Japan Foundation Japanese Language Institute in Kansai. It was only once I had stayed in my dormitory at the Institute for about two or three days that I realized I had not once felt uncomfortable or homesick yet. It was astonishing how quickly I became friends with my fellow participants, and meanwhile Japan simultaneously developed into a home away from home: I was sure that we had been shipped to a far-off region of the United States that for some peculiar reason had Japanese writing on every roadsign. There wasn’t any particular reasoning supporting that; it’s not as if I saw a close similarity to American culture in Kansai or that the people there acted like Americans. It was more so that the teachers at the Institute and the residents of Japan treated me with such kindness and generosity during my stay that I never once felt like a foreigner.

I realize now that my original reasons for my excitement over being in Japan were ostensibly self-centered. I had never been in Japan and I was seeing so much and I was learning more Japanese every day. I couldn’t wait for the end of each day when I could have free time and take walks or go shopping or just breathe Japanese air. It was only after traveling to Tohoku, the area that had been torn apart by the earthquake and tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011, that my perspective about being in Japan completely changed.

Typhoon Neoguri’s impending arrival led to the cancellation of one of the most important interpersonal meetings between us and the people of the Tohoku region: the Rikuzentakata High School Summit. We arrived in Tohoku disappointed and two days later than expected.  Looking back on the three days we spent there, I have never been so thankful to meet people.  We went to two high schools and one elementary school.  It was in Tohoku that we were introduced to the Japanese proverb “Ichi-go ichi-e.” The proverb translates literally to “one time, one meeting,” but was explained to mean that even though we may never cross paths again, we should make the most of meeting each other as fully as we can while the moment is still here. 
Every person we met in Tohoku was a survivor of trauma and suffering, yet each person greeted us with glowing smiles and a radiant sense of thanks for the lives they had been given. Many lost everything—belongings, loved ones, homes—yet they seemed not to possess the ability to dwell on the past and rather looked toward the future with bright eyes. We met a wood worker, Mr. Endo, who lost his wife and three children in the disaster, and yet he spent his days building book cubbies for elementary schools that had been damaged by the tsunami in honor of Taylor Anderson and selflessly helping other families with what they had lost. We met the fourth graders at the recently rebuilt Watanoha Elementary school, all of whom exhibited maturity and compassion beyond their years. We met high school students from all backgrounds who opened their arms to the JET-MIPpers without hesitation and made me feel like we had been friends our entire lives. It is these people that opened my eyes to the humanitarian reason for the JET Memorial Invitation Program that I should have acknowledged far earlier. The trip was far more than an opportunity to see Japan and learn Japanese—it was an opportunity to build goodwill and healthy relationships between the people of Japan and the US, and an opportunity for me to learn what it truly means to be thankful.
If I did anything for the people of Tohoku during my stay, I hope I reminded them that the rest of the world has not forgotten them. Large amounts of volunteers come to Tohoku quite often to help out, even three years after the disaster, but the unfortunate truth is that numbers are dwindling. Furthermore, there was an unnerving stillness in the air of Tohoku that made me realize the extent of the social isolation the area has undergone after the disaster. On a return trip to Japan that I know will happen soon, I hope to revisit Tohoku to volunteer in the still-affected areas.

I had only heard of the JET Program in passing during conversations with my Japanese teacher before participating to JET-MIP. Having had the chance to see classroom environments in Japan and the work of several JET teachers in Japanese schools, I am sure that, in conjunction with my only-strengthened interest in the study of Japanese language and culture, I will want to join the JET Program after my time as an undergraduate student in college.  Seeing Japan firsthand invigorated my interest in being an American that bridges the space between America and Japan—if teaching English to Japanese students is my way of doing so, I will do it gladly.

While it doesn’t fit perfectly, I like to think that “Ichi-go ichi-e” also applies to my experience in Japan as a whole. The nineteen days I spent in Japan are the only nineteen days of my life I will ever spend with those specific thirty-one high school students in that specific location in that specific time. It’s sad to think about that, but it also only makes me feel closer in closer solidarity with the people of Japan and my other JET-MIP participants to realize that I’m happy to have had those days together. I’m glad to say I think I made the most of them.

I may have had one time, one meeting with Japan this summer, but I promise it will not be my last.

Dear Taylor Anderson and Montgomery Dickson,

If I could meet you both just once, I would be frantic to convey as much gratitude and respect as possible for both of your spirits and convictions in your love of Japan. I have only awe for both of you for your commitment to your love of teaching and your courage in the face of disaster.

To go on a trip in memory of the work you have done has been the greatest honor of my life. It brings me grief to think you could not continue the work you set out to do, but I am humbled to have been given the chance to follow your footsteps.  Without the beautiful relationships you created with the people around you, I would have never had the opportunity to go to Japan and see for myself the immensity of the horizon laid before me from here forward. “Thank you” is an inadequate expression of gratitude; in fact, I can’t even imagine words I could use to express the depth of my thanks.


Sam Russell


Nippon Through My Eyes Photo Submission

“Look Up”

The Rainbow Bridge, a memorial made by Mr. Endo to remind people to remain hopeful despite the suffering left behind by 3.11.

Perhaps the most sentimental part of the Rainbow Bridge was the three wooden rods pointing to the sky. Mr. Endo explained that the people of Tohoku may look at the ground in despair, but the rods are there to remind people to look up and remember that there is a wide blue sky and a beautiful future to come even though 3.11 caused so much pain.