Thoughts Towards Japan

March 24, 2011

On this bright March day in Los Angeles, my thoughts are turned to Japan. I write on a page that is white like the snow in Suibara, I remember the bright whiteness of 5000 Siberian swans wintering in Lake Hyoko. In my minds eye I see the Swan Uncle making his rounds to feed them, the Suibara children who form “swan patrols” to protect their yearly avian visitors.

I’m thinking about the communal grace with which Lloyd and I were received in this small town, our only connection a blood-speckled flag my father retrieved from a battlefield in Luzon and subsequently sent home to my mother in the United States. I discovered the flag among my father’s letters after he died. TO YOSHIO SHIMIZU IN THE GREAT EAST ASIAN WAR… IF YOU BELIEVE IN IT YOU WILL WIN. The flag belonged to a young man named Yoshio Shimizu who grew up in this village.

The day we arrived the villagers lined the streets waving American and Japanese flags. I wondered if it were some sort of holiday but our visit was the occasion, the mayor informed us. Yoshio’s family was waiting for us, they were waiting for the flag which was in a box in my backpack, they were waiting for a messenger bearing tidings about their relative fifty years after his death on a battlefield in Luzon. They received us like long-lost family, nearly 70 people crowded into the Shimizu home to watch and participate in the dignified ritual of Yoshio’s flag returning home, into the hands of his sister Hiroshi. Yoshio was only 21 when he died.

The day we arrived in Suibara to return the flag was April 15, 1995, also the day the demented guru Shoko Asahara (whose minions had released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system) had predicted as doomsday. No such apocalypse happened, but in the middle of that beautiful ceremony in Suibara, the room began to clatter and shake. We all sat frozen on the tatami map. An earthquake. When it was over, we cautiously smiled at one another. There. We’d been through something together.

April 15, 1995 in Suibara, Japan

Sixteen years later– the unthinkable, that enormous earthquake, the ensuing tsunami has happened, and we read about fathers and mothers and sons and daughters swept out to sea in front of their families. And in the New York Times this morning, a description of a mass burial in the town of Higashi-Matsushima, each surviving family leaving something for their loved one… a can of coffee, or a ball of pressed rice, “following a local tradition that regards food and money as essential gear for the long trip to the afterlife.”

Now I’ve finally heard from Masako Hayakawa, my translator, that she and her family are safe. She called the Shimizu family to check on them for me and they are safe as well. Though she related the sad news that dear Suezo-san passed away more than six months ago. Before my last visit to Suibara, he dreamed I was coming. He was the one who met Lloyd and me at the bus stop on that bright morning of April 15, 1995, when two Americans disembarked wearing the backpack containing the box with the flag of Yoshio Shimizu.

Holding Japan in my thoughts, in my heart.

Lake Hyoko, Suibara, Japan

[Read more about Suibara and the Siberian swans in my book The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War]

12 Responses to “Thoughts Towards Japan”

  1. This is SO moving, I am very touched by this story. It’s yet another example of how people nderneath the colours of our various flags can be so good, so dignified and decent. I performed for hundreds of survivors at a lunch in the Valley on Tuesday, dressed in Purim costumes and dancing the hora to my songs. It was so touching, and such hope comes from the survivors of great tragedy, whose light beams ever strong. We’re here to tell their stories. Thank you for yours.


    • thanks, Deb. there is tremendous resilience among survivors, to be sure. tsunami on top of earthquake on top of leaking radiation would try the patience of Job.
      i’m out of town when you’re here for your show, damn!


  2. Yours are the thoughts and actions that weave a fabric of the people of the world. Like nature, we can be blindly destructive — it takes a mindful effort to re-extend a broken gesture, or transform violence into communication. Full moon, dark moon. It’s nice to be reminded that even after devastation and loss, some will act for healing and mending. Cherries blossom in snow tonight.


  3. Charlotte Innes Says:

    I’m so glad your friends are safe, Louise. I remember that part of your book so clearly, the welcome and the swans–the amazing swans! My school is raising a ton of money to send to The American Red Cross Relief Fund for Japan. The kids are emptying their piggy banks and holding bake sales. They care. It’s very moving to see goodness at work in the world.


  4. Laura Stickney Says:

    Thank you for the moving connection to your story with Japan. I remember when you first showed me the flag and gave me some of the story about your father. You wondered how to proceed, how to find out more about the people connected to the flag. So many variables continue moving forward in time.


  5. Charlotte Says:

    Beautiful. Full moon, full circle. The swans, Maria the goose, repairing the soul.


  6. Beth Thielen Says:

    Thank you for sharing so deeply. I ache for Japan too.
    I’m glad to hear your translator is OK. I listened to my congressman speak in a town meeting yesterday that nuclear power plants here are not dangerous and we must continue to build them. I have no words for such folly.


  7. I’m so glad to be reminded of your deep connection to Japan and the warmth with which you were welcomed. So much tragedy there mourned with such reserve. Thanks for another opportunity to contemplate our global connections.


  8. Louise, such a moving story and so powerfully and simply told. Thank you for reminding me of your beautiful book. Your ability to build personal bridges across generations and cultures is inspiring and heartening.


  9. Lorri Holt Says:

    Dear Louise,
    How beautiful, many many thanks….I had been thinking about you and your special connection to Japan. And though I have never been there, I feel connected and mourn every day, and send prayers and meditations and as much Light as I have to send to all those who perished, and all those who remain to clean, and grieve, and begin again…..


  10. Dear Louise,
    I just finished reading your book. I cannot say that I have read many books cover to cover but yours was one. Maybe it was the similarities in our lives that kept me turning the pages. My father was in the European Theater of operations and came home with several souvenirs and a little coinage. I know very little about my father’s war time experiences, but hope to find out more, because of the openness of the internet. As for myself, my longest assignment was at Clark Air Force Base never leaving the Island of Luzon. This too propelled me to weave your experiences with my own.
    I could write a lot more but would not want to bore other.


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