In Memoriam

Today marks the anniversary of the striking of the huge earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of the north-eastern coast of Japan. There are three reasons why this event is especially personally meaningful to me. The first is that my grandfather was born in Japan, and so I have family history and close personal family friends there. The second is that the event came only a month or two after a similar, although much smaller disaster, in my birth-home country of New Zealand’s second largest city, Christchurch. The third reason is the issue of nearness and distance: that Japan is one of the nearest neighbours to Korea, and, the resultant problems associated with nuclear power remind us that Gwangju is ‘down wind’ of the local nuclear power factory.

Family History and a Personal Connection

My maternal great-grandfather (my mother’s grandfather) was born in England. He became a priest in the Anglican church, also known as the Church of England, or what people from the USA call the ‘Episcopalian’ tradition. He then became a missionary and was sent to Japan where he worked as a priest and also started a family. For this reason, my mother’s father, while English, was born in Japan. He was home-schooled there until the age of twelve, at which time the family moved to New Zealand where he started at secondary school (or ‘high school’ in North American terminology).

My grandfather also decided to become an Anglican priest, and so he went to the university for priests in Auckland, New Zealand. He graduated, started his work and his own family, and eventually went back to ‘Saint John’s College’ to teach. While there one day, he met a young Japanese man who had come to study to be a priest too. At that time in New Zealand, there were almost no Asian people of any nation, anywhere. Korean people had probably never even been heard of by most ‘Kiwis,’ and Japanese people were very unusual too, but not to my grandfather, and so as that strange-looking Japanese man walked by one day, he said to him: “Konichiwah?!” That man’s name is Masafumi Nishikawa, and he was very glad to be able to speak in Japanese again, as was my grandfather too! They became good friends, and, as my mother was only a few years younger than ‘Masa,’ they also became very good friends. They kept in touch by writing letters and then emails to each other, and in 2003 my mother came to visit me in South Korea, and we went to Japan to share Christmas with Masa and his wife. It was lovely! Masa took the Christmas service, and his wife and he showed us all around Kansai area.

My family has some other special Japanese family friends. A Japanese language student needed somewhere to stay when she went to study in New Zealand. My mother had always felt open to Japanese people because her father had been born there, and so Yoko stayed with her for a while, and they became friends too. Yoko is now married with children but still keeps in touch with my mother and all my family. She is very, very nice!

Well, neither Masa nor Yoko’s families were directly affected by the tragic events of last March  [도호쿠 지방 태평양 해역 지진], however, their country has been terribly hit. This week I learned “49 out of the nation’s 54 reactors [are] offline as of January 2012.” This has to be having an effect on power prices, business, and life-style itself within every household in Japan.

But as to the actual event of the three combined disasters, and perhaps because I know my family friends, or, perhaps because I have been there and seen the coastal towns and the cities and looked out over the eastern sea from a Japanese hillside, I look for a way to think about the size and scale of this disaster. There is a famous quote which reads: “One person’s death is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” To me, this speaks of the challenge of relating to a situation affecting so many people. We do not usually think or feel about more than the one person in front of us at any one time. For this reason, I decided to pick one person to represent the loss of the thousands who were hurt or killed by the earthquake, swept away by the waters of the tsunami, and who will likely die as a result of the nuclear crisis in Japan.

This is Mizuho Sato. Click here to watch an excellent, brief video about her situation.

In Memoriam, Mizuho Sato, twelve years old in March, 2011.

One Month Earlier

The Tohoku earthquake in Japan came only days after an earthquake killed many people in New Zealand [2011년 크라이스트처치 지진]. Though a lot less people died in Christchurch, New Zealand, the population of that country is much smaller than in Japan. It is senseless to compare the tragedies in terms of greater or lesser loss; it is valuable to compare them only by way of commenting that both are very sad situations that remind us that we never know where or when lives may end, and in this way, we all share the risk of loss of our lives. Culture, national pride, history, patriotism: none of these have any meaning in the face of the loss of a family member, friend, or neighbour; they are reduced to the empty ideas of useless ideologies.

Just Down the Road

One expression we use in English to describe the nearness of our neighbours is to say that they are ‘just down the road.’ In Aotearoa/ New Zealand, we also describe Australia as being ‘just over the ditch.’ A ‘ditch’ is a very small stretch of water like a drain-pipe or a tiny stream by the side of a road. We use this expression as a kind of a meaningful joke to describe the connection and relationship between Australia and New Zealand. I do know that Korea and Japan have a very, very different historical relationship, which has made the physical nearness between the countries seem much further away than they actually are. But recently it has been reported in Canada that much debris and trash has washed ashore there from Japan’s tsunami last year. Even Canada is thus directly affected by the events in Japan. Korea cannot even try to ignore or escape this relationship.

Furthermore, living in Gwangju as we are here, we can describe the world’s fifth largest nuclear power factory as being literally ‘just up the road.’ The Yeongwang Nuclear Power Factory has six large water pressure reactors in a row, and the factory is about 40 kilometers away from Gwangju City. Click here to open an active Google map and trace the path of the prevailing wind south east, and directly to Gwangju City, just 40 kilometers away.

Korea's Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant, with its six large reactors in a row, making it currently the fifth largest such factory in the world.

Conclusion

Today is Sunday, a day when protestant Christians typically go to church. The biggest proportion of Korean Christians is Presbytarian and protestant; not dissimilar from my Anglican background. I hope that today, my Korean sisters and brothers, and nieghbours, whether Christian or not, spare another moment to remember and love their sisters, brothers, and neighbours in Japan.

The words ‘In Memoriam’ mean something like ‘To Remember.’ We use these words in the specific context of remembering someone who has died. It is important to share thoughts and feelings over the topic of death, because, like food, music, and love, it is one of the few things that all cultures share, and so thinking about death sometimes helps remind us of our shared humanity and the value of sharing life despite cultural and historical differences. Also, for my pre-med students, it is likely to be an aspect of many of their jobs one day in the surprisingly near future.

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