The Day Time Stood Still In Japan

Susan Page
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Wednesday - April 13, 2011
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A child in Miyagi province after her home was destroyed. Photo from Susan Page

As our family met up at Walt Disney World just a week after Japan’s March 11 disaster to celebrate important birthdays, a new pregnancy (not me!), Tinker Bell, Japan’s continuing woes and “time” were heavy on my mind.

Depending on circumstances, time can move fast, slow or even stand still. It can be “on your side” or a callous foe.

The excitement of seeing the world’s most famous fairy, Tinker Bell, was overwhelming for our 3-year-old granddaughter Emma. In fact, the hour-long line risked wilting all the tiny awaiting “Tink” fans. It was “Bapa’s” (my husband and fellow columnist Jerry Coffee) Mickey Mouse watch that thwarted a potential toddler melt-down. “When Mickey’s hand gets to right there (pointing to the 6), you’ll get to meet Tinker Bell,” he explained. While Emma stayed glued to Jerry’s watch, my thoughts turned back the clock.

I’ve always been impressed by how time is almost sacred in Japan. Trains, airline flights, schools, shops and businesses all abide by a strict code of punctuality. Chronically late, I learned the hard way. In Japan, if the train schedule says 4:20, that doesn’t mean 4:21.

In 1980, we lived in a little rented Japanese house in Iwakuni, a town of about 100,000 just south of Hiroshima on the Inland Sea (Seto Nakai). My husband was stationed at the Marine Corps air base there. Our modest four-room house was surrounded by neighbors’ gardens, and just across from my kitchen window was a big rice paddy.

Every morning I anxiously awaited a daily procession that started at precisely 8:10 a.m.: “the toddlers.” From a nearby preschool, 40 little 3-year-olds were divided into four “color groups” of 10 children each. Right on time, here they came along the rice paddy walk-way wobbling and tottering, like little dyed Easter chicks all decked out in pastel blue, green, pink or yellow suspendered uniforms and little matching baseball caps. The preschool teachers kept the children in a perfect line, urging on stragglers and singing songs all around the rice paddy.

Moshi moshi, ano ne. Ano ne, ano ne. Moshi moshi, ano ne. A so desu-ka!

On March 11, 2011, at precisely 2:46:33 p.m., time stopped for thousands of Japanese people. Accustomed to the orderliness and precision of time tables and schedules, they were betrayed by time. In the tsunami’s wake, famously on-time trains couldn’t go, and broken nuclear power plants couldn’t stop. But much worse, permanently time-suspended were the lives of many thousands of people, including, I’m sad to even imagine, toddlers in little pastel uniforms.

I held little Emma’s hand tightly.

Those who will forever only know their loved ones as they were on that fateful March day understand how time stops, but, sometimes worse, how it moves on. Newscasts have now moved onto Libya or elections or the weather only a little more than a month past one of the greatest natural disasters in the last 100 years. Suffering is mounting.

Can’t we at least continue to keep the Japanese people in our hearts, prayer and contributions for a longer time?

A reader sent me some post-tsunami anecdotes that she translated into English. One comes from a friend in Chiba (outside Tokyo). “At one of the evacuation centers, an old man sat crying, ‘What’s going to happen in the future?’ Beside him, a high-school boy rubbed the man’s shoulder, saying, ‘Everything will be fine. After we become adults, we’ll put back everything the way it was.’”

Another related, “At Disneyland-Tokyo, the sweets in the gift shop had just been replenished, when I saw a group of gaudily dressed high school girls†start hoarding all the boxes. For a second I thought, ‘What’s up with that?’ Then I saw the girls go over and make arrangements for all the boxes to be delivered to the children in the evacuation centers.”

At Disney World (or -land), the “happiest place on earth,” it’s easy to believe everything will be OK. As Emma hugged Tinker Bell tightly and said, “I wuv you, Tinker Bell,” I knew that, in time, the optimism of the young would prevail and things will be better.

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