Monday, March 21, 2011

May the Miso and Cranes Sustain

After World War II had crushed the Empire of Japan, the United States implemented a program that brought some of Japan’s finest minds to this country through the Fulbright program, created “September 1945, [when] the freshman senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that called for the use of proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the ‘promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.’ One year later President Harry S. Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. . . .

“From its inception, the Fulbright Program has fostered bilateral relationships in which other countries and governments work with the U.S. to set joint priorities and shape the program to meet shared needs. The world has been transformed in ensuing decades, but the fundamental principles of international partnership and mutual understanding remain at the core of the Fulbright Program’s mission” (

In 1996, to honor the 50th anniversary of the U. S. Fulbright and to show its appreciation for the benefits extended to its citizens, Japan implemented the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund (JFMF) Teacher Program. For twelve years thereafter, U. S. primary and secondary teachers applied to become a JFMF honoree. Once accepted, the teachers bore no cost whatsoever for a three-week cultural experience. I was one of those teachers in 2003, and I continue to be grateful for the education I received.

The tragedies unfolding in Japan seem more personal as a result of my experience there. In addition, the news makes more sense. For example, when reporters praise the Japanese preparedness, I understand that this is not overstated at all. For example, during one of the three weeks that I traveled in Japan, I was in the city of Okazaki, home to approximately 360,000 people. There, I saw the Japanese investment in infrastructure extended beyond the highly organized, crowded Tokyo to a quieter, smaller city against a backdrop of beautiful, deeply forested hills to the east. There, streets are as wide and clearly marked as any in Tokyo where 1,500 may cross at a green light. Okazaki’s sidewalks feature brightly colored tiles set into the concrete so that visually impaired citizens have adequate warning that the sidewalk’s end is near. Then, when it is safe to cross, chimes sound as a signal for blind residents. Flashing signs and lights let sighted and deaf residents also cross safely. Curb cuts allow people in wheel chairs or with impaired mobility to move from street level to sidewalk level easily. The bridges even have inclined entry rather than a single set of steep steps. Outside the city, hillsides are strengthened against rock slides with a material that looks like dark granite so that the aesthetic of the hills is not destroyed with heavy-duty black plastic and orange cones. Certainly, all this careful construction, designed to protect a small number of citizens, comes at a cost, one that Japan has paid.

We all know now that Japan has also prepared for dire possibilities in construction codes. I saw this is microcosm when I walked past a multi-story building under construction near the hotel where I stayed in Okazaki. Lives and resources were clearly a priority because safety netting enclosed the work areas, thereby preventing work place accidents as a result of falling or dropping heavy equipment. All this forethought and safety is expensive, but during the 9.0 earthquake, fewer people died as a result of crumbling or broken buildings. Even with a mere one- minute earthquake warning--about all that anyone in any culture can expect--people were able to protect themselves from falling debris.

Forty minutes is all the citizens of Sendai had before the tsunami struck. At the epicenter of the quake, the city’s citizens were already displaced, yet approximately one million residents had to move quickly to higher ground. As anyone can imagine, forty minutes is simply not enough time for that many people to exit by the few roads leading from the shore to hills beyond. The loss of life is staggering.

The “perfect storm” of an 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami overmastered the Japanese foresight. Nuclear meltdowns continue to endanger the residents and the world, and that is a terrible twist of fate. Japan sustained 5 ½ months of fire and, in August 1945, back-to-back nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki dropping from U. S. bombers flying high above. Now fires from below--from their own industry--and radiation--molded by their own hands--threaten their futures. For all their foresight and readiness, they still elected to dance with the demon of radiation as we have 104 times. Shall we continue this dance that comes with a death warrant?

As I grieve for Japan, its tumultuous present, and its frightening future, I think of two features of the Japanese culture. Both give me hope.

The first is miso, a blend of fermented soybeans and rice, used to make soups, most often eaten for breakfast. Miso factories are impeccably clean, as spotless as any OSHA officer might demand. There miso brews in huge vats until ripe and ready to be packaged, and there, during a tour, I learned that miso is thought to have cancer-fighting properties. This cancer-fighting power is more than anecdotal. Studies have shown that laboratory animals given a diet that includes miso have a lower incidence of cancers. In fact, after the Chernobyl event, the U. S. S. R. bought tons of miso for those who lived near the reactor. I only hope that Japan has stockpiled or is still able to produce miso for its own citizens.

The second cultural icon is the crane, often beautifully crafted from origami paper and now a universal symbol of peace, especially after the U. S. inflicted fires and bombs in 1945. Emerging from the rubble, reminiscent of the Phoenix, the crane stands, proud, solitary, and tall. Rising to fly, its wingspan, power, and grace amaze. Using the crane’s origami form, children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki craft a sort of lei to present to honored guests, and after tragedies, these same paper cranes hang as ornaments from ceilings and trees in places around the world. With each fold of the paper, the craftsmen, women, and children utter a silent promise to keep the peace, to heal and bind, to overcome and triumph over disasters, both natural and man-made.

May the cranes fly and the miso sustain in the days to come!

To learn more about making an origami crane, visit your local craft store, book store, or To learn more about miso’s properties and promise, take a look at