Tag Archives: grief

Friday Love Letters – The Japanese People


Each Friday I’ll write a love letter to someone or something that has made my life better.

Friday, March 30

A week has gone by and I find that Japan is uppermost in my thoughts again. I wonder if it made such an impression on me because of the age I was when I lived there. Was there something more open about my spirit when I was 10, 11, 12? Perhaps. But maybe it was the time we were there. We arrived in 1963, a few months before I turned 10. Half a year later, November 1963 happened to the American psyche.

“What were you doing when you heard about…?” Conversations start that way about the Challenger disaster, 9/11, deaths of celebrities, and if you are a boomer – President Kennedy’s death. In Yokohama it was Saturday morning. I had gotten on a Special Services bus to go to a judo lesson, and I was for some reason the only person on the bus that morning. I remember I sat up right behind the driver, and when he got to the gate to go on base, he didn’t get waved through as usual. Hurried whispers, them guard and the driver looking back at me. The driver turned the bus around and took me back to the housing complex, not telling me what was going on other than the judo lesson was cancelled. I remember seeing how empty the street were, sensing something was wrong, and not knowing what.

At home, my mother was crying as she vacuumed. I can still see the tears running down her cheeks as the roar of the vacuum cleaner drowned out any other sound. When she told me what had happened, I felt how terrible it was without even understanding why. I had no frame of reference, but I could feel the emotions. It was an odd, disconnected kind of grief.

But that evening we dressed up in our Sunday best, my mother and I, and went down to the Catholic Church in Yokohama. We weren’t Catholic but my mother had heard there was going to be a service for the president, and so we went.

And it was there that I first got to see the Japanese people as a whole. It’s one of the most bittersweet memories I have of Japan.

The church was packed. And the people who were there were overwhelmingly Japanese. There were a few Americans and here and there you could hear English, but overall these were Japanese people mourning an American. They would try to speak to us, but I only knew a smattering, what I had picked up in Japanese Culture class in school. My mother knew even less. So these people would try to say something to us, finally giving up and murmuring “sorry, sorry” with tears rolling down their cheeks. The votive candles in the stands flickered in unison as the crowd sang and prayed. It might have been in Japanese, it might have been Latin. It definitely was human sadness, like a language of its own.

After we had been there for a little while, there seemed to be a push toward outside. I remember it as a raised balcony of some sort, but it may have just been the steps to the church. We went with the crowd, one old woman taking my hand and bringing me toward the front of the crowd.

In the cold night sky there were fireworks. Not the cheerful exuberant fireworks I loved about Japan, but cascades of white chrysanthemums exploding and trailing away like shimmering tears, themselves.I looked up at these people around me, who seemed as close as family there in the dark. I watched the tears on their faces illuminated by the fireworks and felt oddly loved. Adopted.