The Japanese Way: A Full Circle

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Native Astorian Richard Bartoldus describes his experience in the aftermath of the Japan's devastating earthquake March 2011

In the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, a native Astorian shares his experiences, living in his wife’s country with their children, and watching the Japanese cope with the  devastation wreaked by these most recent events.

By Richard Bartoldus

Moving to Japan was a dream come true. What young boy at one time or another doesn’t  want to be a ninja or a samurai warrior? Living there would be a lesson in meeting the challenges of confronting my perceptions of what I was seeing, what I was becoming. Who I was, who I am and who I want to become for myself and, suddenly, for others.

Arriving in Japan I was amazed by the work ethic: work first, family second. I didn’t agree with that frame of mind but worked hard and was quickly hired full time as a regular teacher. I remember one time working through an illness to the point of passing out and being rushed to the hospital. Upon my return to school I received a hearty applause from my coworkers, “”You are a real teacher now Richard!”” It was great to be accepted and was rewarded with being made an assistant teacher in another position and assistant coach of the baseball team, more time away from family, more time dedicated to my job. At that time I was the only foreign baseball coach in my prefecture.

As my family grew, the hours I put in and time away from my young children also grew. Soon, it was too much and I began to resent the “work first” philosophy. There was no getting around “The Japanese Way.” This-is-how-it-is-done. A thru Z, with no change at all. I didn’t understand this and eventually gave up my job at the school to start my own company, creating a class that focused on international business and was soon hired by major companies.

I was successful and my business grew but I would always have to deal with the ”The Japanese Way” -this is how “we” do it- philosophy. My students were eager to learn about the western business method and were quick learners. They would travel the globe on business  trips, coming back to thank me, but once back in Japan they would fall back into the Japanese mode.

After 17 years of working in Japan, the last 10 living here, I decided to return to Oregon. It was a very hard decision but my belief in family first was too strong. I had started to feel negative towards my adopted country and I didn’t like that.

With less than three weeks to go before my return, the earthquake hit. I was alone at home. It was not at all like I had planned when I thought about disaster preparedness. Living in Japan I’ve been in earthquakes and pretty much thought I knew what to expect. But nothing had prepared me for this. In my daydreams, I envisioned myself grabbing my children and leading them to safety if a “bg one” ever hit. In my daydreams, maybe, sometimes, we had to run but we were always together and safe. Never was I alone. Yes, foolish thinking, but that’s how it played out in my mind.

Then, the real quake hit. As always, you look up at the string hanging from the living room light just to confirm, “Yup, its a quake!” watching it rocking side to side. I live in an older house, so the hanging light was moving too. This time, it was a different type of quake. I swear you could see the air move side to side and I felt seasick. My iPhone had died the week before and since I was moving I didn’t bother getting it fixed. I had no cell phone, just our local house phone and that was not working, all I could get was a busy tone. I couldn’t call anyone. I was alone.

Thank God, I had my iPad and I quickly skyped my family in Oregon. My sister answered with a soft surreal, “Hello.” No picture, only audio, but hearing her voice, a voice so far away but sounding so close was unreal. I was unable to answer. I think I was waiting for the quake to stop but it didn’t. She again said, “Hello?” And then,  “Ricko? Are you ok?” The only word I could say -or maybe scream, I’m not sure how it came out- was, “Earthquake!”

Saying this made me panic. Being the journalist she is, she started firing off questions but all I could say was “earthquake!” I can’t imagine how they must have felt hearing a family member so far away yelling this. I think I heard my mother’s voice yelling for me to turn off the gas. I quickly turned off my gas and then remembered to open my door. When I opened my door I saw all my neighbors coming out of their houses.

They must have noticed the look of terror in my eyes and they all yelled to me, “Gaijin San, daijyobudesuka?” Are you ok? I said,  “No!” They all laughed nervously and tried to comfort me. I asked if it was over but knew it wasn’t. My arms were spread out to my side and I still felt seasick. Someone pointed up to the power lines and they were all swaying. They finally stopped moving and one old guy put on his little hard hat and said that there was a much bigger one up north and then he sped off on his bike. Another lady headed back to her house.  I asked what next, she said she was going back home. Another must have noticed my cluelessness and told me its ok now but leave my door open, “just in case.”

I later heard that up in Miyagi the quake lasted over 5 minutes. Not sure how long it lasted here but it was long enough for me to do all I just described before I returned to my house and sat down on the floor in front of my iPad. I managed to say I was ok and I could hear they had their TV on and many people talking. I quickly turned on my TV to read the little reports that show on the upper left hand side of the screen after earthquakes. Something very common but this time the program was the newsroom and the newscaster was frantically putting on a hard hat while trying to hold a to a piece of paper and steady himself in front of the camera. This was no ordinary earthquake.

I was in shock, I hadn’t a clue what to do, I am serious when I say I wanted to run, just run. Where? No idea. Just run. Then the worst thing a parent wants to hear in a disaster came from a voice on Skype. “”Where are the kids?”” I wanted to cry, I was ashamed. I hadn’t even thought of them. Where was my wife? No idea! I remembered she wrote me a note so I run to the kitchen and grab it. She has gone to pick up her mother somewhere. The name of a city I did not know. She said she would be back after 4:30, and  it wasn’t quite 3:00 yet and I had no way to contact her. Did she have the kids?

I realized I didn’t even know my wife’s phone number, it was a simple one push button on my tossed iPhone and the phone number list we had kept on the refrigerator had already been packed. I quickly yelled for my sister to give me my wife’s phone number and her parents number, any numbers she had. All the time I’m watching the TV and its showing news rooms and stores’ remote cameras, it seemed liked cameras from all around Japan and everywhere was shaking much more violently than here in our home town.

The news people were yelling out instructions on what to do as the camera showed scenes of carnage. It was hard to understand but I did hear to cover your heads and go somewhere safe. If you live close to the ocean, immediately go to higher ground as soon as possible. My family in Oregon is watching this, too, I can hear it through Skype.

My mother has the NHK news going on her computer and I can hear that too. She just keeps saying “oh God” over and over. Quickly, my wife’s numbers are read off to me and I write them down on something and start calling. My father takes one of the numbers and starts calling from Oregon, too.

I’m not sure how many times I called my wife over the next few hours but it seemed like hundreds lasting a lifetime. Watching the news made it worse. The tsunami’s came quickly and the news showed the cars racing away from the massive flow of debris as it swept over the top of them.  In the background I could hear my nephew yelling at their television screen, “”No no, go right, go right! What are you doing?”  I, too, am yelling or thinking, not sure, it was so surreal. You feel like it has to be a video game… Until the debris filled wave overtakes them and you realize you have just watched real human beings die right there, in front of you. Someone on Skype moans.

Then, another person gets out of their car and starts to run but you see he has nowhere to run. You yell at him to go back, but he cannot hear you. He tries to turn and the wave is there to greet him, you see him no more. Another vehicle, a white van, is driving full speed in the wrong direction, right towards the wave! I hear “No!” from someone in Oregon. The van disappears out of sight behind a building as the wave engulfs the whole area and everything disappears. I think I turned off the TV, then opened more doors.

I began to shake then, not sure if it is the cold from all the doors being open or me being terrified. It’s all a blur now and it’s taken me four days to write this down but I remember crying along with my family in Oregon as the events unfolded. My sister may have been the only calm one, she kept asking me simple questions keeping me grounded.

I’ve no idea what I would have done without her voice reaching out to me some 6000 miles away. My mother told me later that she couldn’t stop thinking that in one of those cars was my wife and kids. Even though they all knew what was happening was far away. It was happening now and Ricko’s wife and kids were not home and it was as real to them as if they were sitting in my living room with me. My Oregon family just kept imploring me, “keep calling her.”

When I finally heard my wife’s car pull up I hollered, “They are home,” and ran outside. As I ran I heard my family cheer “Their home! Their home!” and suddenly they were back in Oregon and I was alone in Japan with my family.  My wife had no idea of the magnitude of the quake. Just that there had been a quake.  My daughter had neglected to tell her mother that her teacher had yelled at them to all get under the desks at school during the quake.

I hugged all three of my children and my wife smiled, not yet realizing what she had “missed.” It was again surreal, had I imagined or overexagerated the magnitude of this? We quickly went inside. My kids yelled, seeing dad was talking on Skype and again yelled, “Hello Grandma!” and hello to aunty and grandpa and uncle.  I heard my mother’s voice crack as she replied hello and that she loved them. My oldest again recalled the story of how the teacher made them get under the table and how she was falling side to side. I told her she did a great job, knowing she handled it better than me and told her I was proud of her and I then went into the bathroom and wept.

Thinking of her there and me not having a clue what to do and not being able to help her was too much for me.  I just kept thinking about that white van. The driver was not running away he was running to … a loved one.

I couldn’t do anything and I wanted to scream my frustration and my quake here was merely two thirds the size of the one they endured up North. The one I felt here was nothing in comparison. I changed that day.

Watching the news my wife quickly understood the severity of the quake as we watched the horror scene of wave after wave hitting the villages along the coast. My kids started to cry and became afraid. We turned off the tv and started calling love ones. A brother in Tokyo could not be reached nor my students who lived in Chiba. An Aunt and Uncle who lived in Miyagi where the biggest concern. The Aunt had really been a big support for us when we got married and was very kind to my mother on her visit. We bathed the children fast, no long bathes that night. We turned on the TV to see that my wife’s Aunt’s village had been destroyed. It was completely wiped out. Her uncle was a senator and worked in the city office that was next to the sea. The city office was gone. There was no getting hold of them or anyone. We learned that her Aunt had called a son after the quake but when the tsunami hit all contact ceased.

As we watched the TV my wife’s face changed and she whispered something, I couldn’t understand. Not wanting the kids to know she writes on a piece of paper and passes it to me. The note says, “A tsunami has just hit Chiba.” It took a second to register. Our household goods had been picked up on Thursday and taken to the port of Chiba. Everything we owned. Over ten years of photos and memories where at that port. Again, I am helpless, speechless.

It was a terrible night. I could not sleep but stayed next to the kids all night. Checking the news off an on. We felt a few more earthquakes but up north they were having them every 15 minutes and they were all registering 5’s or 6’s and a few 7’s. The news didn’t get much better so I would check my email and every time I checked it would be full of new messages from people I haven’t heard from in years, friends of friends, people I met only once, all sending messages asking if I was ok and their prayers are with me and Japan. I would post on my FB page updates and gain strength from the support my family and friends sent.

The next morning wasn’t much better. Seeing the aftermath in the light of day made us sick. Knowing the death toll that showed on the TV would be much larger once this was over. The earthquakes continued up North but we no longer felt them. My family and friends back in the States were all telling me to get home now. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t leave that easy and felt we were now safe being so far from the ocean.

Then, the nuclear plant had an explosion and concerns of radiation leaking out and a possible meltdown bring more cries from my family and friends  to come home now. I still can’t leave. I felt frustration coming from my family. “”What are you waiting for, get your family and come home now!” I felt guilty leaving. I couldn’t explain, let alone understand, why I felt this way, I think I was in shock. I just sat there watching TV and crying at the shots of people describing their horror of watching family members being swept away.

I had to meet a student that day and it was so odd. Leaving my house to go back into the “real world.” People were back to work, staying busy, but it was definitely quieter than normal. I had to finish up final classes and paperwork.  “Life goes on,” I thought how crazy is this? Then, remember reading a story years ago about the foreigner asking his Japanese friend after an earthquake how he stayed so calm and how could he just get up so easily and continue with is work. His Japanese friend said, “what am I supposed to do? We can’t stop it and it’s going to happen again. Of course it’s frightening but there is no point in thinking about it, it’s over.”

While reading it I thought, “that’s crazy,” and now I’m seeing it firsthand. I don’t know what I thought they should be doing but I wanted to hug someone, to cry and just run wildly, flinging my arms in the air.

This did not happen. I finished my work for the day and I returned home. My wife had the kids doing their homework at the kitchen table and our house seemed back to normal with only the TV reminding me it’s not. We got good news, my wife’s brother and his family we’re ok. The trains were not running so my brother-in-law had walked 10 k back to his office and spent the night there. He talked of passing people sleeping on the cold streets with nowhere to go. He was safe and needless to say we were very happy.

That night sometime, after eight pm, my wife received an email from the shipping company. The man apologized saying it was a terrible earthquake and they lost all power and must apologize but they have no idea where our household goods are. All systems were down. He apologized over and over saying he will do his best to find it and contact us as soon as possible. By that time we just accepted the fact we lost our things and told him to just take care of himself. How could we expect this man to search for our boxes? Boxes, when so many lives were lost!  I still didn’t understand it. I still didn’t get it. Why this man was so dedicated to his job, finding someone’s boxes.

Again, I get messages.  My family sending their please-come-home Skype texts and my friends postings on Facebook of just-get-home-we-will-give-all-you-need.  They all tell me that the boxes are not important. Just come home now! And still, I cannot leave. Not yet.

Sunday came and we drove around to all of relatives, checking on them and saying our last goodbyes before we start back to America. Another surreal day, even with all that’s happened, The plans were made long before to do this so we could not change the plans. That would not be The Japanese Way. So it was a full day of saying goodbye and talking about the quake and our missing family members. They all talked about the uncle who surely lost his life, since he was a city worker he would have stayed at work. They were proud of this fact. I was saddened.

At noon that day my mother-in-law received a call from her nephew. A rescue worker had called him and said his mother and father, Aunt and Uncle, had been rescued, both were safe! Smiles and laughter spread through the house. Then, we quickly returned to the duty of the day, driving to each family members house and saying our goodbyes. We had a schedule to keep!

Late that evening, we return home to more horror stories and now the newest threat, more nuclear meltdowns. I wanted to leave and I wanted to leave, now! But, then, something wouldn’t let me. Thoughts of my students, who emailed me to say they are ok, they were scared and they are still nervous, but they thanked me for thinking of them. And I cannot leave.

I knew what I had to do, I had to finish my final two weeks of classes. To my family’s disbelief I do not jump on the first plane out, I go to work. It is The Japanese Way.

My first class is with an engineer friend. Our classes usually turn into a free talking session of the cultural differences between our two countries. Very enlightening for the the both of us. Along with this being our first class together since the quake and tsunami, it is also our last class together. It is a very somber moment.

My student told me about his coworkers, my other students, who were at the Tokyo office and how they all thought they were going to die because the building was shaking so violently. I asked how everyone was doing and he answered saying that I can ask them later in the day when they come to class. They had all shown up to work that day, too.

He told me about the meeting the company had right after the quake. They discussed what they should do to help the people who lost everything. Since they were not professional rescuers they didn’t think going to these areas would help so they decided since they make 70% of Japan’s pulleys and another part used in water pumps they can increase production of them and get them to the people in need as soon as possible. Pumps will be in high demand and this is how they can help the recovery of those cities and its people.

So, they got to work on it, everyone starting right away, working deligently. They were organized and knew exactly what to do and did it. They showed up to worked as they have always done, worked hard through the day, and then gave a little bit more for this effort. It was The Japanese Way.

It hit me really hard. I began to cry and apologize. I told him how not a month ago, this way of thinking in Japan and with my wife and her family drove me crazy.  A thru Z, with absolutely no side stepping, work, work. work always making a schedule, never changing, everything exactly the same. I would yell, “just skip that part we know it already!” And now, in this disaster, this frame of mind, “The Japanese Way” what I’ve been fighting and in part, why I’m leaving, is exactly why the Japanese will rise above and rebuild what they lost, I know it. The people waiting in line not attacking the food providers. No looting, no yelling at the government for help. Each company, each individual, will do its part without being asked, begged or bribed.

You hear no complaining from the people on the television, just their heartbreak… The rescue force gets to use 100% of its manpower on rescuing people, not standing guard over the food and water. I’m telling him this through my tears, saying I’m sorry for ever questioning your way of thinking.

In Japan, tears are not shed so easily but it’s our last lesson and most likely our last time seeing each other. We both are teary eyed. He stands and extends his hand, I quickly follow, stand and shake his hand. We say no words, he is thinking. I dont interrupt his thoughts. He finally finds the words and says, “”I’m glad I met you, we both learned from each other, neh? Richard, I think you are a special person.””  With my head down, I say “”No, no. You are””

Our hands are still shaking as I look up he is smiling and at the same time we both say, “I won’t forget you,” we laughed as he hurried off to his next meeting.

Half my classes that day went the same way. My students and I talking about our feelings on Japan and the world. What we’ve learned from each other and how to appreciate both the differences and similarities.  Looking back at it I sometimes think my biggest gift to them was letting them know grown men can cry and laugh at the same time.

On Monday afternoon my wife got a phone call from the shipping company. It was the same man who had emailed her Saturday night. He spent the weekend looking for our shipment and I’m sure many others shipments. To our amazement and his delight, he found ours in the countryside just outside of Tokyo. No idea how he did it but we thanked him very much. He refused any thanks, he was just doing his job …

It’s been a hell of a last few days but I think Japan had to knock me on my ass to remind me why I love it here. So, I’ve gone the full cycle from being in love, confused, I belong here, I don’t belong here, it’s just wrong, I want to go home, and now not wanting to leave and in love again.

My heart is torn as my departure date nears.  I want to run home and hug my American family but feel extreme guilt for leaving. I should be going back to work, helping in my way this adopted country of mine, in its time of need.

I guess, writing this is my way of helping myself and Japan. Its my thank you to Japan. I hope someone can get something from this. I will not forget all I’ve learned and I know without a doubt you, Japan will prevail over this disaster and anything else you come against. Please do not change and thank you, for changing me.