Alive With Grief – Bob Stilger’s Notes from Japan #34~ August 22nd

I’m co-hosting a learning journey for Japan for Sustainability.  We’ve brought together a small group of younger leaders to learn with and from disaster.  Let me begin these notes with a story…
That afternoon of March 11th, 2011, the young woman was rushing to the hills and came across a grandmother moving slowly. Let’s go together she said. They hurried along for a while, but slowly, so slowly. Minutes passed and the grandmother said please go ahead, save yourself; you have your whole life ahead of you; please go. With regret and a heavy heart the young woman started to run up to the mountains. The sound of the tsunami growing behind her. She turned and watched as the grandmother was caught, tossed and turned in the waves.

One of so many stories Takahashi-san shared this afternoon. This strong and humble man spoke of his life since the triple disasters. He’s the President of Maruto Suisan, a fish processing factory in Ishinomaki. He spoke with his deep grief to our group of 14 younger leaders from across Japan and around the world.

Such a time. He wondered out loud, why did I live while my friend died. Why was it he who was trapped in the car, unable to open the doors or windows, as the waters rose?  Why was he allowed only that last gasp of air before the waters closed around him?

All 76 of his employees, including his wife and son, managed to successfully evacuate to higher ground. Of course, each has stories of family and friends who were killed or physically and emotionally scarred. At the end of 2011, he had managed to build his business back to about a third of its size. They had a year-end party to celebrate their survival. Lots of good food; no alcohol; and then a circle to talk about the meaning of their lives. We are here to remember. 6000 of our 120,000 died. We are alive. Why?

The room was filled with silence as he spoke. Hard words. Grief. What about all those families in Japan that have found success?  You know, they have a nice house with new appliances and a shiny car. Their children have gotten into good schools. But are they happy?  Is this all there is to life?

I’m okay today, but sometimes it is so hard to go on. A good friend of mine thinks about suicide almost every day. But each time I would begin to give up, miraculously one of my 800 or so business partners across Japan would show up, here in Ishinomaki, just to be with me and help in whatever ways they could. More than 400 volunteers helped to shovel the 10 tons of mud out of my factory. Some days I was all alone. Just me, the mud and my grief.

So we make fish products again. Not as many as before. Some of the other factory owners are angry with me because I measure the radiation. They say it is better not to see. But do you know, 67 years after the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, 4000 new patients when this year to the A Bomb Red Cross Hospital there?  Sixty-seven years. What have we done?

It’s the young people like you who are making a difference here. You come with your energy and commitment and makes older people like me have hope. How can we work together to build a different future, one that is not based on consuming things but is based on being in relationship?

I was struck, in many ways about how Takehashi-san is an ordinary man. Like Miori-san who met earlier in the day who started Ishinomaki Kitchen. Women who now live in temporary housing come there and cook together, building community with each other and those who come for nourishment. What makes them, special? They are able to stand in their grief and despair and find that next step. Ordinary. Special. Words which describe aliveness.

There are so many stories. So many tales of grief and of hope. What’s changed?  Everything. Nothing. Everything again. I sit here on a hillside in Ogatsu as our little community comes alive. A lovely spot. What’s changed?  At one level there is the urge to get back to “normal.”  But normal is gone. This village numbered 4000 and now has perhaps six hundred. The junior high, where the wise principle told the children to run into the hills, is destroyed. He walked the hills for a week to find all the children. They are alive. The school is gone.

What’s changed?  Everything. Everywhere. My host father, now 84, says the same thing from his home in Kyoto, 500 miles away. The age of things is done. We must begin an age of relationship and happiness. But what is happiness and how do we find it now?

We listen, and then we are silent. We listen some more. Perhaps sometimes it is our turn to speak. We listen to each other and try to find our way. We hope questions more than answers.

What will happen here in this land that is another home to me?  Will we fall asleep again. Will we get caught up in our old lives which weren’t working all that well before?  Will we try to buy happiness?  Or lash out at each other in our sadness and bewilderment and anger?

I don’t think so. Something new is being born. It is both fragile and strong. It is life.

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1 thought on “Alive With Grief – Bob Stilger’s Notes from Japan #34~ August 22nd”

  1. Bob…
    I so very much appreciate your words and willingness to approach loss and grief in the Tohoku area with our brothers and sisters in Japan.

    You are approaching essential questions of our humanity in profound and empathic ways.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and some of that of those with whom you visit and sit with.

    Bob Ness

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