Watching video of the destruction caused by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is horrifying. I have friends and acquaintances who are affected, who are comforted by knowing their families are safe, but still suffering from seeing endless video of all the carnage. This event has brought back some unexpected memories. People my age and older have had many experiences and almost as many memories (admittedly, we may have lost or revised a few) to which they turn to see connections between events of the past and those occurring in the present.
Watching footage of the disaster reminded me of an educational exchange in the year 2000 in which two social studies teachers and I were sent by a local Japanese business group to Japan for 10 days. In Kobe, site of a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 1995, we felt pressured by our guide to visit the city’s Earthquake Memorial Museum. Of course, we had other preferences for our free time: visiting a sake distillery, going to a big shopping mall, or just wandering around the city. But our guide was insistent. Over the course of several days together, she had shared stories about what happened that day, how her father had immediately taken off on a bicycle to try to locate family members in other parts of the city and hadn’t returned home for several days, and about a friend trapped under debris who days later was able to reach our guide via cell phone to ask for help and was eventually rescued. We agreed to go to the museum, thinking she would leave us at the front door and we could take a quick peek and escape. This didn’t happen because she accompanied us into the museum and ensured that we covered every display. To our surprise (and embarrassment), we found the tour interesting and asked our guide lots of questions, which pleased her greatly.
It wasn’t until years later, long after I had been sent by my superintendent to Columbine High School with a team of police, firefighters and a hospital emergency room nurse, that I understood why it was important to her that we saw photos of the earthquake devastation and understood the magnitude of the disaster. After returning from just three days hanging around Littleton and Columbine, for at least five years I couldn’t stop talking about what I had seen, just like our guide, but I hadn’t even been in Colorado while the tragic events were taking place, had only seen some of the after-effects a week later. Not only did I babble, but I read everything I could get my hands on about the shootings. Even ten years later I hadn’t forgotten my visit to the school. In 2009 I read a book called Columbine as soon as it was published. It finally hit me that when we were in Japan, only five years after the Kobe quake, our guide was still working through the trauma she had experienced. She needed to take us to the museum to relive the event and have outsiders understand what horrors she and other residents of the city had gone through. Thankfully, we had not given in to our selfish wishes, had honored her request and showed interest in what we were seeing. However, it had taken many years before I could see how badly we had acted in trying to avoid the museum. No one should have to beg us to learn about their past. No wonder we humans don’t do a very good job of getting along when it can take so long to see things from one another’s point of view. I hope in the future, if anyone ever wants to talk to me about what it was like in Sendai and other cities near the biggest earthquake in Japanese history, I will listen.