Letter from Japan

Boy at Writing Desk. Japan, Edo Period (1615–1868). Netsuke; ivory. Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. Ney Wolfskill, B81Y93.

Boy at Writing Desk. Japan, Edo Period (1615–1868). Netsuke; ivory. Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. Ney Wolfskill, B81Y93.

We recently received the following letter from Mike Thompson, a friend of the museum who is teaching English near Tokyo. He has given us permission to share it. The letter speaks to the rebuilding that must occur within the heart after a major tragedy such as Japan has experienced.


Hello Friends,

I would like to update you on the situation in Japan. The radiation danger is still present, but our lives have returned to something approaching normal. My friend Tom Gally has a web site where he has been culling the Japanese news outlets and translating them into English for his family and friends, and he said I could give out his link. His sources are better than mine, and he has links to other web sites with earthquake / tsunami / nuclear recovery information. His page has his daily routine for his family members to read, but also general information about post-disaster Tokyo that might be interesting (I met Tom in the student dormitory at UCSB many years ago, and now he teaches at the University of Tokyo):


Along with milk and spinach, now add cauliflower, broccoli, most leafy green vegetables and tap water to the radioactive contamination list! Bottled water is being rationed and distributed to families with infants. Nobody really knows how far the fallout from the Fukushima reactors will spread, or how long this will go on. The news can be depressing. Some workers have been hospitalized for radiation sickness. As the death toll climbs, individual stories are coming up in discussions with friends and colleagues—A 24-year-old American woman who was a schoolteacher in Fukushima drowned. A bus with kindergarten children was caught in the tsunami and the children died, but the bus driver was swept onto the roof of a two-story building and lived. But then there is this—a grandmother and her grandson were rescued from the wreckage of their house nine days after the earthquake. And we are hearing about babies that were miraculously born in the midst of the deluge and survived.

Today was a good day. I attended the graduation ceremony for sixth graders at Haijima #1 Elementary School in Akishima where I’m the English teacher. It was refreshingly happy: 79 kids I’ve known for four years with scrubbed faces, wearing new clothes and junior high school uniforms, loud voices, singing and crying. But the speeches from the principal and the board of education official were somber, and poignant. They noted that other kids in northern Japan have no school buildings left in which to hold their graduation ceremonies, to say nothing of the children of the same age who were lost in the tsunami. The population of Japan is shrinking, and the next generation is the nation’s most precious resource. You children face an enormous challenge, we are counting on you … words to that effect. The speeches were also was a kind of pep talk reminding the students that Japan as a nation has faced and overcome adversity in the past. Do your best. Be happy.

Graduations in Japan are very formal affairs—in fact most ceremonies in Japan are formal. Men wear black suits with white shirts and WHITE NECKTIES! Some mothers of children and teachers were wearing kimonos, and one teacher wore a hakama, a very traditional, formal kimono reserved for graduations, weddings, meeting the emperor, or winning the Nobel Prize. The fifth-grade students attend the ceremony, and all of them play the graduation theme “Pomp and Circumstance” on recorder flutes as the graduates march into the school gym that is decorated in red and white, auspicious colors. Each graduate’s name is called out and they receive their diplomas on stage. They sing the school song (one student played the piano, quite well). Then the fifth graders shout out a very scripted “THANK YOU!” and the sixth graders sing a tearjerker SAYONARA song to them, and everybody weeps. We all go outside in the warm sunshine and pose for pictures and laugh and smile with parents and kids, and say goodbye. The new school year starts in April, and the new sixth graders will lead the school entrance ceremony—I just love this—where the older kids carry the first graders on their backs into the same gym, now decorated with paper cherry blossom flowers. At my daughter’s school they had a trust-building event in summer where the older kids form a human chain across the nearby Tama River, and one by one the little kids are helped to cross the moving water.

Today was a beautiful spring day in Tokyo. I felt emotional thinking of what has happened here in the past two weeks, the tremendous loss of life, lost cities and towns, but next month I start a new school year and meet new kids for the first time, and I get the privilege of making memories.

I’ll close with some lyrics that I remembered. Surfing the Internet these days, I came across the No Nukes rock concert from more than a decade ago. by Musicians United for Sane Energy. An understated but powerful sentiment in Japan is a strong reaction against the use of any atomic power at all by many people, especially the older generation. Among the musicians performing at the concert was Jackson Browne, a songwriter I like (my bandmate called him “America’s favorite crybaby!”). I remember his song “For A Dancer” that says:

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound

At least today, I heard a joyful sound from the children, and it was a good day for me in Japan, my adopted home.

—Mike Thompson

3 Responses to “Letter from Japan”

  1. jack  on March 29th, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Thank you for publishing this moving eyewitness account.

  2. Robbie  on March 29th, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Beautifully written…I feel like I’m there, looking as hard as I can to make lemonade.

  3. Traci  on March 31st, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful yet tearful letter. I was just discussing the terrible plight of Japan with my adult children and for years my youngest son has wanted to visit the country he admires so much and now he feels that his desired trip would do more harm than good for he feels he can be of no help… I told him that any out stretched helping hand is welcome… this letter only proves how strong and full of faith this country and its historic culture truly is… our prayers go out to all who suffer

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