my Japanese heart

Since the earthquake and tsunami have devastated Japan last Friday, I have had trouble sleeping, thinking about all the people, and animals, and towns destroyed. (Tsunamis are a re-ocurring nightmare for me, almost every week I dream of tsunamis, and of having to rescue loved ones against all odds…).


urlDuring this terrible crisis I have been shocked and saddened to see many instances of insensitivity and lack of compassion towards the human beings who are experiencing this unimaginable suffering. From godzilla jokes, ignorant historical references, and mean fat talk trending on Twitter this weekend, the internet has revealed an ugly, selfish, ignorant and hurtful side of humanity, a prejudiced and hateful side that chills me to the core.


When a tragedy of such epic proportions strikes, we must use it as an opportunity to come together as human beings regardless of our race, national identity, and religious beliefs, because we are all much more similar than we’d like to think. We think we are all so different, so special, so individualistic. But, as the Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska said so sweetly,


With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.


And yet, for the most part our social conditioning cultivates an othering process that stresses our differences rather than commonalities, so that most of us really start believing that we are different, if we’re Americans, we’re different from other nations, if we’re Christians, we’re different from other religions, if we’re skinny we’re different from overweight people, if we’re light skinned, we’re different from darker skinned people.


An image of ‘the other’ is created, cultivated and reinforced as a construction, as a defensive mechanism to prop up our identity crutches, our belief systems which are so entangled with our sexual, political, religious, ethnic and national identities.


In my yoga class on Sunday, the wonderful teacher Anya Porter spoke about the need to cultivate compassion and led us through breathing exercises designed to open our hearts and expand our abilities to love and have compassion and empathy. It was hard for me to understand that people need to develop compassion, cultivate it, grow it like a plant, because my own heart overflows with empathy and compassion, with too much of it, so it is hard for me to understand people for whom compassion doesn’t come naturally, whose hearts don’t ache when they imagine a human being or animal suffering, but this is why I am writing this post, to try and understand, and do my part to cultivate compassion.


I am lucky that my heart is open, and I am a passionate, warm, loving person, and I have to credit my multilingual, multicultural upbringing for that. Because first of all I consider myself a human being, a citizen of the world, and then I am all the other ‘identities’, an American woman, an activist etc. Though my mom is originally from Russia (now a US citizen), and my dad American, I was born in Tokyo and grew up in Japan until I was nine, when I left for Germany. When I was a little girl, I thought I was Japanese. I was vaguely aware that I had blond curly hair and looked different than my Japanese friends, but only adults seemed to care about those superficial differences. I spoke fluent Japanese, grew up playing with Japanese kids on the streets of Tokyo, and knew that we were the same inside. Same same but different, the difference being superficial and irrelevant.


When I was old enough for kindergarten, my mother brought me to the local Japanese one, because that’s where my friends were. They told her that they didn’t accept foreigners, and my mom, amazing and courageous as she is, smiled and said, you will accept this one, she is not a foreigner, then told me in Russian she’d be back to pick me up later, and turned and walked out, leaving me in a room full of Japanese kids, with the teachers unable to speak. I held out my hand in a peace sign, and started speaking Japanese to break the silence. Of course, by the end of the day, I was fully assimilated, very happy and welcomed by everyone including the teachers who embraced me wholeheartedly.


So yes, part of my heart is Japanese. I still feel it, though ‘genetically’ I’m not, though I don’t ‘look’ or ‘sound’ Japanese, though I am a US citizen. So this tragedy in Japan feels personal to me, and lack of compassion for the people enduring this pain dumbfounds me, because to me they are not ‘others’, they are my friends, my brothers and sisters, even though we look different, and even though I can’t speak Japanese anymore, and haven’t been back since then. And this is how I feel about people around the world, even from countries I haven’t visited or lived in. I just know that underneath it all, we are one.


It is only in the growing up, in the teaching and learning of our national histories, of our cultural histories, our identities, most of which are mythologized, constructed, embellished is it that we learn that we are this, and the others are that. And they are not like us. But they are, and we are just too scared to see it. Underneath all that social and cultural conditioning we are the same. Same same but different.


By the way, after going to a Japanese kindergarten in Tokyo, my parents sent me to a German school, though I’m not German. So all my schooling has been in German schools, in Japan, in Germany, and in the US. And my favorite subject was always history, and believe me when you’re half Russian half American sitting in a German history class talking about WWII when you’re grandparents were the Allies, your Russian grandfather fought against the fascist invasion, and your great grandparents starved to death in the German blockade of Leningrad and your friends grandparents may have been Nazis, you learn to be open-minded, to expand your understanding, and then you come to understand that we are all the same. No matter what we look like, sound like.


We are raised differently, and it is our responsibility to develop this awareness, to understand this is a construction, a facade. In order to develop as human beings, we have to break down those walls of prejudice, of sexism, racism, ageism, fatism, of hatred, ignorance and prejudice. Whenever we see or hear prejudice or injustice, we have to speak out. This is our responsibility. This is how we can cultivate compassion. Staying silent is being complicit. Sometimes people don’t even realize what they are saying, how hurtful it could be to someone, how mean it is, how ignorant and selfish, so it is up to us to point out the light outside the self absorption, the light and love that connects all of us, whether we want it to or not.


And please, if you haven’t yet helped Japan, please donate by texting RED CROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to help those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.


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  1. Great post Maria. I totally agree with you. I was also moved lot in my life,and heard so many not nice things on the basis of nationality, diversity. So i can say that i totally agree with you and will be so happy when more people will think like this. Because i had also read in some forums so sick comment,bad comments on this what i going on in Japan and i can`t believe that this kind of person exist,such shame. I am shame because of this people.I can`t imagine that someone don`t has compassion.
    I am thinking always about this,about how are people (not all) bad and i can`t understand this.All is material,money,i need to be better from other.And you are different so this is not good,i hate this things.People are people,human and it is not important where you are born,where you are grow up or this similar things.
    Ok i will stop here because when i think about this i am always angry on this and can`t understand how people don`t think on this way and think just on themselves.

    Sorry on my english,hope that you will understand all ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Thanks for this post Maria. I couldn’t agree more. There’s a lot of ignorance, particularly with the anonymity and knee-jerk reactionism of the blogosphere. But I just have to believe, that these people only write these things to be funny or shocking ie to get a reaction out of other people and because they are hiding behind this digital curtain. I think if you took these same people/bloggers/demagogues out of their comfort zone and plonked them down in Tokyo or Sendai and had them witness the destruction and the grief and the incredible sadness they would not be able to voice these same opinions and views out loud. I have to believe this in order to be at some sort of peace with the world. And I agree with your initial thought: that deep down, deep inside, we are all the same.

  3. The tragedy unfolding in Japan is on a scale that far exceeds what my poor old brain can comprehend. A whole port village wiped out in an instant. Landscapes razed to the ground, irrevocably changed by natural forces that dwarf the destructive power we have in all our human arsenals. Massive infrastructure collapse and the disasters that stem from that. They need all our help. We have a lot to learn.
    But on a different note – “[…]the difference being superficial and irrelevant.”
    Absolutely. Walking down the stairwell of my apartment block one day when the lift was out of order, around level 4 I noticed daubings on the wall. Russia for Russians, a swastika. It shocked me. I’m not naive. I remember arguing in broken Russian with my Russian family about racism and antisemitism and freedom when I was a kid. (Looking back I must have been unbearable.)
    I know we all have to identify and overcome the (often hidden) prejudice, bigotry etc in our own thinking, in ideas lazily accepted or left unchallenged. But this shocked me. Immediately the place felt less safe. Not because of any physical threat, but because I felt alien to my surroundings. “If this is acceptable here, where such sacrifice was made fighting the Nazis during WWII, then what hope is there?” I thought.
    It reminded me how this process of expanding our understanding is so vital, so fragile. It needs all of us to keep on keeping on with it, to move beyond feelings of embarrassment, fear or hostility and to work to see how we can create a space where we can work through this.

    As a child I was at an international school from the age of 3-10. I remember that child’s perception of difference and sameness. We were all classmates, Londoners, children: our parents may have been from Ethiopia, Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Japan, Ireland, but fundamentally we recognised the “same-ness” in each other. We played as children, fought as children, and made up as children. Nothing else came into it.
    The older I get the more I find myself remembering that time. Not merely through a rose tinted haze. But as I look around me for similar spaces, expanding pockets of compassion and understanding…

    (sorry – I have a tendency to ramble on…)

  4. What a wonderful post. I very much agree with everything you said. I think it’s about time we get out of our man/woman made bubble and start to realize their are other people out there very much like ourselves.

    We are all one at the end of the day as you said and the only way we begin to have compassion and care for others is when we allow our selves to become exposed and get out of this bubble and into the real world.

    Dividing ourselves only makes it easier for us to distinguish who we are….I guess we always take the easy way out unfortunately.

  5. Thank you for all your thoughtful comments! I think for those of us that are openhearted and openminded it is a challenge to accept how fragile this state of mind is, how we constantly need to work on our own hidden prejudices and assumptions, and how sadly, it is not the norm, and thus very critical for us to promote, to explain, and to share with others. Every time we catch ourselves or someone saying oh those people are like that, and these people are like that, we have to stop, language is so powerful, so reinforcing of lazy stereotypes and judgments.

    The only way you can create an enemy image is by othering, otherwise you would see the enemy as yourself, as your family, and then you wouldn’t want to hurt them, which is why this is at the root of conflict, and why breaking down this othering by creating empathy and compassion is the only way forward.

    Sian, exactly, it is frighteningly fragile, so delicate, and what seemed so obvious and natural as children becomes enormously challenging now. It’s crazy! I know exactly what you mean about fascism in Russia, it is terrifying, and shows how easily the horrors of history can repeat themselves ANYWHERE, and how ironically, how the flame of peace and freedom is a tiny candle that can be blown out when we’re not paying attention, and it is a perfect example of how the nationalist identity can become the straw that the drowning bug latches onto in the glass (and no I’m not equating people with insects, it’s a metaphor, and not a good one, but you know what I mean). Nationalism gives a pre built identity that you can slip on and thump your chest with, feeling a part of something larger, something meaningful, a misapplied mission to defend, to protect, to expand, and don’t we all want to feel that? This is why speaking about Chechens with most Russians or Palestinians with most Israelis is such a difficult issue. They have their walls built up to justify and defend, and the cycles of violence continue in perpetuity with both sides becoming less and less safe. If national security was the real goal, occupation and oppression would be the worst way to bring about a sustainable solution, because it makes it less secure.

    The only way to break free is to sit down listen to each other and move forward together with a shared vision. Nonviolent dissent by civil society is powerful, and it is important to be active and speak out, because most do not. We have collective narratives and personal narratives in our own mind, and if things don’t fit, we try to make them, that is why people often only hear what they want to, or misunderstand or talk about themselves, cos they’re trying to fit it into their existing narrative. To stop and listen to another side, another narrative, is very hard, and I constantly challenge myself to do it because everyone brings their baggage into everything (even though it’s such an annoying mental exercise to try to place yourself into the shoes of a hateful, resentful, narrowminded person, it’s still important to understand how they got there and why they clutch onto a bigoted perspective).

    Last night I was in the UN General Assembly hall, watching a screening of Julian Schnabel’s new film MIRAL, which is a poetic story of a Palestinian girl, based on a book and true story. It was very powerful and moving, and I couldn’t believe we were watching a movie in the GA! It is admirable that a middle aged Jewish American director chose to make this heartfelt beautiful film about an Israeli-Palestinian girl to promote a peaceful solution to the conflict, despite incurring the wrath of many who do not even want to hear it, or know about it, because it might putting into question everything they believe.

    There was an awesome panel discussion afterwards including the woman who wrote the book, Dan Rather, a postmodern progressive Rabbi, and a former Israeli military colonel turned peace activist (who was AMAZING and admitted that he did not even hear about the Palestinian struggle until he was 31, that is how sheltered a narrative bubble he grew up in). It is a lopsided situation there that has gotten worse and worse, and further away from a peaceful solution. I urge you all to watch MIRAL when it comes out, and to lobby for a peaceful solution. Freedom from oppression will liberate not only the oppressed but also the oppressors.

  6. I thoroughly enjoy your posts, this one resonated. It was heartfelt, sincere, and deeply compassionate. I myself have many times engaged in the conversations about unity in the world of multiculturalism and diversity, the importance of highlighting similarities as opposed to differences, in a world where relating to one another can be nothing short of lifesaving. Your message was powerful. I watched an interview with a supermodel Petra Nemcova, who herself became one of countless victims in the 2004 Thailand tsunami. With her response to Japan, she probably reached more people than all media coverage combined, because she came from a place of understanding and unity. One of the things she said, and i found that to be a fitting analogy, was: “the world is like a body. When a finger is hurt, the whole body feels it.” How often do we disregard this simple fact, is astonishing. The human experience is vastly transcendental across boundaries of territory, culture, sex, class, age, or race. our experiences of love, pain, fear or joy are strikingly the same across the board, yet we build divides by striving for and elevating our differences. Building our tower of Babel. Blogs like yours truly make us connect, you are extremely relevant. Looking forward to reading more.

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