August 2, 2011
Japan e Yokoso… Onegai shimasu! (Welcome to Japan…Please!)
In March of this year, Japan was struck with one of the most devastating natural disasters of its history. Only three short months later, the first group of US citizens set off to lend a helping hand. 68 Oregonians and Washingtonians, all apart of the Flight of Friendship, set out from the Portland International Airport on a nonstop flight to Tokyo on May 29th of this year. They returned in June with a humbling story to tell. Sean Egusa, a leader of the Flight of Friendship, has returned from the journey and has offered to share his experience:
Sight and smell I can’t forget
I am not the same
When we landed in Tokyo, we were the first ones at immigration. It was a bit of an anomaly, as we not only flashed through immigration but also through customs. We wielded our Flight of Friendship stickers, our pins, our t-shirts proudly as we exited the airport and prepared to face Japan. Really, it hadn’t changed, but, really, it had…
You are the first large group to Japan since March 11.
With that simple statement, Sue-san, our tour guide established a sense of urgency in all of us that was quickly quelled by the realization that we were already doing our part. Against many odds and obstacles, we were here.
March 11, 2011 will be the new benchmark for disasters and the effects of the continuing struggle between Mother Nature and humanity. A 9.0 earthquake, a 10 meter (33 foot) tsunami that, in places, reached 10 km (6 miles) inland and a devastated nuclear power plant that had the world on edge.
A humble group of Americans and Japanese had come to raise spirits, strengthen resolve, provide an economic injection and lend our backs to the recovery efforts. To remind the Japanese that they are real, that they are relevant and that they are not forgotten. And with that in mind, some of us put on our best “tourist” hats and hit the expectant crowds of Tokyo… that never materialized…
When people think of Japan, they probably think “crowded” and “packed” anywhere and everywhere, and for many of us who had been to Japan before, we knew this to be true. So when we stepped onto the grounds of Asakusa, one of the most famous attractions of Tokyo and Japan, the quietude that displaced the normal cacophony of the crowds was shocking.
When a group took to the ocean off the coast of Sendai to visit Matsushima, one of the three most celebrated scenic attractions in Japan (the other two are Miyajima and Amanohashidate), they were the first international visitors the residents and proprietors of the islands had seen since that fateful day. Imagine not seeing any visitors at the Mt. Rushmore or Carlsbad or Yosemite for over three months. But this was their reality. You could already see the recovery in the places we visited. Where once doors were closed, shopkeepers welcomed us with smiles and open arms. This was indicative of not just Sendai, but Tokyo as well. Visitors can have peace of mind in knowing that Japan is ready to showcase itself once again as a treasure to be taken in first hand.
In the words of a friend: I remember the faces of the shopkeepers in Matsushima who had only re-opened their stores three weeks earlier as we bought mementos that may have been worthless to us, but right then, were priceless to them.
We weren’t there to be a catalyst for change; we were there to be a catalyst to return things to the way they used to be.
Truth be told, the logistics of trying to help with the recovery efforts are daunting, but there are so many more ways that we were able to help, and as strong and stoic as the Japanese people are, one thing was obvious no matter where we went… Japan needs its friends now, more than ever.
Have no doubt, Japan is on the road to recovery on the backs of a strong, resilient people instilled with dignity and cultural pride. The recent win of the Women’s World Cup by the Japanese Women’s Soccer team demonstrated to the world what the Japanese are all about and that Japan’s future is bright. Together, we can help get them there faster and in the company of friends and partners. They say that when times are hardest, that is when you know who your true friends are. Well folks, now is a great time to demonstrate your friendship with the Land of the Rising Sun.
It’s too late to join the Flight of Friendship that Azumano led just a month ago, but it’s not too late to do your own thing and make your own contribution. Go there, be a tourist, visit friends or family, offer a smile, a nod of understanding and experience that infamous Japanese hospitality.
You can read more about the Flight of Friendship and the people they met, experiences they had and memories they shared on Sean’s blog.
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