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Japan's Silent Screams

Bailey Henneberg recalls her childhood impressions while living in Japan, and how they relate to understanding this current crisis.

Memories of Japan and its people have been wafting through my mind this week, taking me back to the land of kimonos, cherry trees and the noble people of my childhood days. Once again, I am encountering its gentle and strong citizens, this time in great crisis.

As a young girl living on the Kantamura Air Force Base near Tokyo, the Japanese people made an enduring impression on me. I can’t point to the exact time when I came to know them—because like their movements that were small, quiet, soft—their impression grew on me in an oxygen-like fashion: all around with no visible drama yet giving life.

Back then Japan was not the economic power it is today. It was a third-world country. And many of the Japanese people I met came on base to work. They helped my mom clean up behind her five over-active kids, sewed or gardened. Two young college students also came to our house to perfect their English through conversations with my mom.

But to me they were too regal to be considered maids or seamstresses or even students, they were the ambassadors who taught us the magic of Japan.

I can’t say I studied them. My life was about climbing trees, Barbie dolls and playing outside. Still, distracted as I was, I couldn’t miss the Japanese’s calmness and ability to maintain composure with grace, despite the slings and errors of outrageous children.

Greenbelt has also been privileged to meet some of Japan's gracious citizens. Seeking to study ways to preserve the history and memories of Senri Newtown, Japan’s first planned community, Kana Wakabayashi and Yasuhiro Tanaka, have visited Greenbelt several times.

They were softspoken and very gracious, recalled Director, Megan Searing Young, who is waiting to hear back from emails we both sent inquiring about their current condition and needs.

I was not surprised to learn, after their last trip, the two took the extra step of writing Greenbelters a polite thank you in the or by their bringing gifts to Searing Young each time they visited.

I recall those impeccable manners from years ago. I don’t remember hearing a Japanese person yell, even once. In their presence, I felt safe. There was an absence of sudden movement or noise and a continuous soft and quiet power that I found mysterious.

Today, as I see them face the agonizing multi-crisis of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation, I worry that this is too much for anyone, even the Japanese to bear.

And yet, the dignity I witnessed so many years ago still carries them.

I've heard that donations for Japan are comparatively low. USA Today reported that U.S. charities donated $49 million in the six days following the earthquake, which pales compared to the $296 raised by the seventh day after Haiti’s most recent earthquake. And Japan’s quake was at least 700 times stronger than what hit Haiti, according to CBS.

I suspect part of this is due to organizations, like the Japanese Red Cross, claiming they do not want outside assistance.

Their refusal calls to mind Masako-san, the silent and strong woman who helped mom watch us kids and clean up our unimaginable messes. Masako-san once admired a beautiful ring mom was wearing. Like mom often did with other friends, she took the ring off and gladly gave it to Masako-san.

By Japanese standards, it would have been an insult to my mom if Masako-san had refused her. So she accepted the ring. But Masako-san had little to give mom in return, being a widow whose only son was attending college. Still, the proud Masako-san was determined to return the gesture. So she took off her wedding ring, the only thing she had to give, and handed it to mom.

Mom didn’t want to take it. But she feared that if she refused, the insult to Masako-san would have caused greater offense than accepting. Years later, mom told me that story with horror.

With a heavy heart over Masako-san’s sacrifice, I asked mom for the ring one day, and she gave it to me. I wished Masako-san had known that mom also gave her rings and necklaces to plenty of affluent friends who needed nothing. It was not charity – it was mom.

Eventually, when my youngest sister, Linda, announced she was getting married – I finally knew what to do with the ring.

While she was busy cleaning our house, Masako-san had also carried Linda on her back everywhere, despite the burden it must have added to her load. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. And Linda was so attached to Masako-san, that she had learned to speak Japanese before English.

So I gave Masako-san’s dearly loved the ring from her dearly beloved, relieved that I had finally found a home for it that I think would have pleased Masako-san.

Had she known the Japanese culture better, I suspect mom could have found a way to give Masako-san her ring without Masaka-san being burdened by the gift. And in the current crisis, I am inclined to think that if donors had approached the Japanese Red Cross in a culturally-aware way, they would have been received.

Fortunately, Japan is accepting aid from the American Red Cross, which I suspect approached them respectfully and not as the great white lord giving alms to the poor savages beneath its magnificence.

Besides not understanding the Japanese attitude, I suspect there is a far greater set back limiting U.S. generosity. We are misinterpreting the quiet nobility of the Japanese – that holds its course even in great crisis. To put it simply; we'd give more if they were screaming, crying and flailing their arms about.

I’ve learned through mistaken acts of generosity, that those who don’t moan and heave often have greater needs than those who can whip up a Tony-worthy display of emotion.

Clearly in the absence of mass feinting and loud screams, many of our TV drama-drenched minds don't get that, despite their calmness and clear thinking, the Japanese are in a living horror and with great grief suffering the stark agonizing loss of children, parents and beloveds while also facing the devastation of their ancestral homes.

It's unfortunate that we don't understand the grief that screams in quiet people, because based on my childhood encounters with the Japanese, I can make a good prediction right now, that regardless of the hell that unleashes itself on Japan – we aren’t going to see the Japanese pull out their hair and spontaneously combust into a pool of shrieking tears.

I never traveled into the northern part of Japan, where most of the current devastation lies. But my mom went through it by train eventually stopping in Hokkaido. Masashi-san, one of the intelligent gentle students she spoke English with, died suddenly in the prime of his life from kidney disease. And my mom, who rarely ventured far from the nest, even later in life, was determined to attend his funeral.

My dad was one of few obstetricians on a base full of young military couples, so he couldn’t leave. But even he, who was harder to impress than my mom, admired Masashi-san and was struck by the unexpected tragedy.

Braving a culture that might not accept someone who wasn’t one of them, during the late stages of pregnancy with Linda, mom went out on her own.

To her relief, Masashi-san’s family didn’t consider her an outsider, but instead embraced her as an honored guest. They even treated the tired-out mother-to-be to a Japanese hot bath.

Thinking back on one of my mom’s bravest deeds, I suspect that if during this disaster, the American people can take a lesson from my mom and appreciate soft voiced-grief while also respectfully approaching the mourners  – the Japanese will be honored to receive our full hearts.

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