When the Earth Shakes

As all of you I am sure know, a devastating earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand last week, killing at least 161 people.  Inside the collapsed CTV building, many Japanese students and teachers from the Toyama College of Foreign Languages were having lunch when the earthquake struck.  According to news reports, the building collapsed within a matter of seconds after the quake hit.  The last thing some survivors remember is shattered walls falling toward them.  About 28 Japanese people, including 12 students from Toyama, have not been accounted for yet and are feared dead.  One of them is the retired principal of Namerikawa High School, where my friend Jenson teaches.  News reports first indicated she was rescued and was being treated in the hospital. Jenson told me that her husband was so relieved to hear the good news, only to become very ill upon hearing that his wife has not been found yet.

Like every major natural disaster, this is of course a tragedy beyond words, and I can’t imagine the pain those with family members still missing are feeling.  My thoughts are with them all. You can donate to the New Zealand Red Cross here. At last week’s JET Fest, I was humbled to see how many Japanese donated to help with relief efforts.

On a small aside, I would like to share some personal thoughts about things that have been on my mind this week.  Five days after the New Zealand earthquake, a moderate earthquake struck Toyama early Sunday morning.  Thankfully, there was no damage or injuries reported.  I am told earthquakes are rare in Toyama (something about Mt. Tateyama protecting the area).  But Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, as it sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” When I awoke Sunday morning, it felt like someone was shaking my bed.  A little scared because of the New Zealand tragedy, the words of famed Chicago journalist Mike Royko came to mind.  He wrote a famous column when his first wife, Carol, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at the age of 44.  Royko was famously sarcastic and witty in most of his columns, and in my opinion, no other journalist has yet to match his Everyman tongue.  Yet in this column, he was at his most humble and honest:

“We met when she was 6 and I was 9. Same neighborhood street. Same grammar school. So if you ever have a 9-year-old son who says he is in love, don’t laugh at him. It can happen…. If there’s someone you love but haven’t said so in a while, say it now. Always, always, say it now.”

I first read this when I was in high school and still find it moving.  So, to my family and friends around the world: I love you all very much.

How American Health Care Fails

(This place doesn’t look like anything special from the outside, but the inside is wonderful).

This is a personal story.  I am not writing this as a health care expert, economist or politician.  Rather, I am simply writing this post as an American who has been treated by doctors in three different countries on three different continents – the United States of America, Ireland and Japan.   These experiences have shown me ways in which the American health care system fails in comparison to many other industrialized countries.

In college, I was probably as healthy as anyone could be.  I only saw the doctor twice – once when I came down with a nasty case of pink eye my junior year, and then for a routine check-up my senior year before I left for Ireland.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been as lucky in my mid-20s.  Last spring, a slew of health problems took me by surprise.  I had just quit my day job in a retail store, losing my health insurance, and was working as an intern at a business publication.  Much thanks to my cautious parents who taught me well, I luckily had the foresight to take out independent health insurance.  But by the summer’s end, I had paid about $2,500 out of my pocket in medical bills when some unexpected health matters occurred.

I am happy to say that all is fine now, but a health scare a few weeks ago took me back to last spring and summer, a very stressful time in my life.  I was worried about moving to Japan because I had been sick and was uncertain about my future.  After being cleared to go to Japan by my kind doctors, I decided to give Japan a try, and I am glad I moved here for the most part.   When I moved to Japan, I became a resident of Japan, and thus I am now covered under the country’s universal health care system.  When I researched Japan’s system a bit more, I read this enlightening Washington Post article by Blaine Harden.   In the article, Harden explains, “Japan has a system that costs half as much and often achieves better medical outcomes than its American counterpart…It does this by banning insurance company profits and limiting doctor fees.”

I am grateful for this system.

I didn’t think I would run into any more health problems, but one Sunday morning, one day before I had to decide about staying another year here or not, I woke up with the same problem that forced me to see a surgeon last year.  I was certain I had to see a doctor and was not looking forward to seeing  a physician who could not speak my language (nor I his or her language).  By the end of the school day, about 10 minutes before my appointment, I ended up bursting out in tears at my desk.

My kind supervisor drove me to see a general physician.  Luckily, my friend Adam, who works as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) for the JET Programme and speaks Japanese very well, was there to help translate.  After waiting only about ten minutes, the doctor examined me and recommended I see a specialist.  “This is a good place to come if you have a cold or a stomach ache,” he said, per Adam’s translation.  Before leaving, I handed the front desk my health insurance card.  They processed my card, asked me to pay 1,000 yen (about 10 dollars) and gave me a receipt. End of my billing story.

I would have been lucky if that entire transaction took two months in the United States.

But I still had to see one more doctor.  I held back more tears as we drove about five minutes to a new office.  Everything inside was amazingly clean and efficient. I waited only about five minutes before seeing a kind doctor who examined me and took an image of the problem (something I had never seen in the U.S.).  He explained the problem and said that it’s not uncommon for my issue to keep re-occurring.  He said he could help relieve the pain through a small procedure that only took about five minutes.  He moved me to another chair and did the procedure very quickly.  Afterward, he explained what he had seen and prescribed me some antibiotics.

I walked out of the office feeling relieved.  I handed over my health insurance card, once more expecting to pay a larger amount.  I paid 2,000 yen (about 20 dollars) and received a receipt. I also got my medicine that exact moment at the same office.  No trekking to the pharmacist and having the order be called in.

Once again, I would have been lucky if that billing process took another two months in America.

In addition to my Japanese doctor experience, I had to see three doctors when I lived in Ireland.  When I compare all three experiences, I always come back to the same thought: there is something missing in America’s health care system.  In both Japan and Ireland, countries with public health systems, I had to pay very little money out of my pocket.  There was no complicated billing process, no worry about what doctor to see and no worry that I would have my bank account drained should something unexpected happen.

I know both Ireland’s and Japan’s health care systems are not without their flaws. Many people in Ireland still choose private insurance, and Japan’s system might not be economically feasible in the future.  I also understand that a universal system might not be economically possible to implement in a country the size of the United States, but I am hopeful that those who can’t afford good coverage get what they deserve in the near future – that is, that they receive the best care possible for any medical condition, and shouldn’t have to break a bank account to receive that treatment.  Obama’s heavily-debated health care reform bill is a step forward, and I am curious to see how much will change in the future.

The doctors I have seen in all three countries have been amazing individuals, and I am grateful for each and everyone of them.  But until I move back to the States, I am clutching my Japanese health insurance card like it’s gold.

My Most Dreaded Katakana

The Japanese writing system consists of three alphabets (hiragana, katakana for loan/foreign words and kanji, or Chinese characters). I taught myself hiragana and katakana my first month in Japan, finding hiragana much easier to master. Katakana, which I learned second, is more difficult for me because there are a few characters that look very similar. Even months after commencing my study routine, there are still a few katakana characters that repeatedly give me trouble. Here, I will list them and explain ways to remember them, with hopes that these hints will make their way into my thick skull as well.

shi and tsu

シ ッ

My first name in Japanese is シ―ラ (shi-ra), so you think I would have this one down by now, but I am afraid I don’t. The difference in each of these characters is small but still important. According to my JET Programme Japanese language course book, the first two strokes of shi are written “with the second coming below the first. The last stroke is written from lower left to upper right.” In other words, the last stroke is written from bottom left to top right, and it looks thicker on the bottom than on the top. In contrast, the first two strokes of tsu are written “so that the second is to the right of the first. The last stroke is written from upper right to lower left,” resulting in a slightly thicker stroke on the top. Read this helpful online guide as well.

so and n

ソ ン

The difference between so and n is pretty much the same as shi and tsu. The second stroke for so is written from top right to bottom left, while the second stroke for n is written from the lower left to the top right. The character so looks more like a broken checkmark to me than n.

u and wa

ウ ワ

These two aren’t as difficult as shi and tsu, or so and n in my opinion, but I still mix them up! The obvious difference is that the katakana u () has a little line in the middle of the character. Here’s one device to remember it by: udon noodles are popular in Japan, so the little line sticking up is like an udon noodle sticking up from a pot. The wa () can be remembered because it looks like a water fountain…kind of.

ma and mu

マ ム

These are basically the same symbol but reversed. The ma () opens to the left while the mu () opens to the right. Here’s one (very silly and maybe absurd) way to remember it: male (it kind of looks like a man’s nose) and mura, like Murakami (Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s most international authors). I hope this helps! がんばれ!

Some helpful sources I used for studying: Kana Can Be Easy by Kuniko Ogawa and Japanese for Busy People: Kana Workbook.

Those Who We Learn From

The first time I came to Tokyo in 2009, I spent much of my time alone wandering through hyperactive streets glowing in every direction.  I had no idea where I was half of the time, but countless kind Japanese people helped me along the way.  There was the kind gentleman who carried my heavy bags down the stairs of the Akebonobashi Station near Shinjuku just before his work hour; there was the train attendant who patiently helped me figure out a problem I had with my ticket when traveling to Nikko; and there were dozens more who made sure I was on the correct train or was walking in the right direction.

But the person who I remember most is an elderly woman I met when strolling through Happo-en Garden.  At the suggestion of a friend, I walked through this somewhat hidden gem in Tokyo on my second to last day in Japan.  After entering the gates, I quietly strolled around the garden, admiring the carefully trimmed trees and listening to the soothing, streaming water in the ponds.  After about 10 minutes of observation, I noticed a kind-looking woman smiling at me.  She introduced herself and asked where I was from and my age.  She continued to smile and told me she had children around my age.  She said Happo-en was a very special place to her.  “I was married here many years ago,” she told me in English as we continued to walk.  “I have come here almost everyday since then.” She said that many things have changed in Tokyo since then, but this garden remains a special place for her.

After chatting a bit more, I asked her about the Japanese tea ceremony ritual, and she walked me to a small restaurant that served green tea.  She showed me around the area and wished me luck with the rest of my journey.  We then parted, and I went to a nearby house to experience my first tea ceremony, which, quite literally, I paid for with every last coin I could find in my pocket.  I wrote about this woman briefly in my essay to the JET Programme, and in many ways, it is people like her who make me admire Japanese culture, even if there are parts of the society that certainly frustrate me.

Now that I live in Japan, I have had several other encounters with elderly Japanese women.  I am not sure why, but they seem drawn to me, and I to them.  Many of them go out of their way to talk to me, even if they don’t know much English.  This is a country, after all, where many adults take in their aging parents instead of immediately shipping them off to a nursing home.  Although I consider myself a fairly progressive and forward-thinking individual when it comes to politics, I also have always believed in the wisdom that your elders can teach you.  I wish I had talked to my grandparents more before they passed, and I hope to have many more conversations with my maternal grandmother before her time comes.  My elders in Japan remind me how much I still have to learn about life.

During my first week in Namerikawa, I stopped by a local grocery store just steps away from my apartment.  The average customer’s age here is probably 70.  As soon as I stepped in the check-out line, I was greeted with a large grin by a woman who (in Japanese) eagerly asked where I was from and my occupation.  I smiled and tried my best to reply in Japanese.  We talked a little bit more about the weather before I gathered up my items and headed back to my apartment.  Now, each time I see her, she always grins and asks me questions, mainly about the weather and how I get to work.  I can’t always understand her because my Japanese is poor, but her effort to speak to me is quite touching.

A few months after settling in Namerikawa, I spent a fall weekend in Kyoto with Jenson.  He won an essay contest, so I accompanied him to Japan’s former capital.  We took an early Saturday morning train, and just before we boarded, I had to stop by an ATM to get money for the weekend (Japan is a very cash-based society, so without cash, you’ll find yourself in a tough position).  I waited outside another local grocery store with ATMs that open when the store opens.  I sat down in the waiting area next to an elderly Japanese woman. She smiled at me and asked me the time.  I showed her my watch, but she couldn’t see well, so she gently grabbed my wrist to bring it closer to her face.  She then thanked me and offered me a piece of Japanese candy.  Soon, another elderly woman came to wait with us.  They seemed to know each other and began talking.  I offered her my seat and she thanked me profusely.  I smiled, and soon the doors opened and we separated.  A few weeks later, at the same store, an elderly woman and I arrived at a check-out lane at about the same time.  I bowed and quietly whispered, “dozo” (go ahead).  She thanked me and seemed so shocked that she said something to me in Japanese that I could not understand.  Noticing my confusion, the clerk smiled and said, “beautiful….manner.”

Most recently, I spent my first Christmas away from home.  I missed my family, and even though stores played Christmas music and decorations were everywhere, it definitely did not feel like Christmastime…until Christmas Eve.  It snowed heavily for the first time in the afternoon, and by nightfall, snow covered almost every inch of this tiny seaside town.  I plowed my way through the sidewalks to make it to the train station in time to meet two friends for dinner in Toyama City.  On the train ride back, I met a kind Japanese woman whose face lit up when I sat down next to her.  After a moment of smiling, she asked where I was from and what I was doing in Japan.  She told me she was in town for a funeral.  I expressed my condolences, and she then took from her bag an essay she wrote in English.  “I will give a speech later on this,” she said.  “Will you read it?”.

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

The essay was about the Japanese tea ceremony.  She wrote that her mother always wished she would participate in tea ceremony, but as a young girl, it did not interest her.  Years later, she finally obliged, and discovered the beauty of tea ceremony, which takes years to master and emphasizes harmony and ritual.  We talked for a few more minutes.  She told me was 65; I told her my mother is the same age.  She said that she and her husband live alone in Osaka now that their children are grown.  “If you want, you can stay with us when you come to Osaka,” she said.  We exchanged phone numbers and e-mails.  As the train approached Namerikawa, I said goodbye and gathered my hat and gloves, ready to walk through the snow once more.

Suddenly, I felt less alone.

Clouds rising above mountains

The sight of clouds gracefully rising above the mountains is an image I will probably never get tired of. After a sweltering summer, it finally feels like fall is coming to Toyama…slowly.