Is Perception of Light Culturally Conditioned?

Do Japanese and North Americans have fundamentally different attitudes and preferences toward the relative brightness and color of light in their homes and offices? Are there specific sources that this attitude can be traced back to, and are they in turn related to other fundamental cultural differences?

I ask this question because evidence that this may indeed be a general cultural truth keeps coming up in my conversations and daily life. In my experience here in Japan, the lighting in nearly every Japanese house that I have entered has been entirely comprised of overhead, white, fluorescent lights. Bedrooms have these lights as well. Very rarely have I seen households in which the majority of the light inside comes from lamps, indirect or diffuse sources of light, or has a warm yellow or golden color. Those that have are typically inhabited by people who have been specifically influenced by their stays in American homes.

These kinds of lights, which are so common here, are those that I would characterize as harsh, unhappy lights. These are lights for working, lights for a purpose. These are functional lights that irradiate every corner of a room and have only two settings – pitch black or blinding white. For me, this kind of light is not appropriate for one’s home. A home is not simply a utilitarian shelter, but a place for one’s mind and soul to seek solace from the outside world. When one is at home, they should feel at home. Warm, indirect light reminds us that we are in a place of comfort, perhaps evoking a womblike quality in which we are able to retreat just enough from the glare of reality to face it again the next day. The glare of a fluorescent is psychologically jarring. So, I fail to understand why it is so common in the homes of the Japanese, a people and a culture who are no strangers to luxury and amenity.

This conflict between these two kinds of light has actually been one of the greatest sources of argument fodder in my own marriage. On summer evenings, I’ll come home first, and switch on a ring of holiday lights that perimeter the ceiling and the small light over the range, and cut vegetables or wash dishes as the sun sets and the day slips into night. It’s a nice feeling. Once it’s dark, I’ll turn on the standing floor lamp and it alone is fine for me to eat by, or play a card game, or do the things that one does in the service of leisure. But then my wife comes home and inevitably switches on the 2000 lumen ring-fluorescent fixture overhead. Sometimes she does need it to do schoolwork or to write something, but for her it is habit, normal, atarimae. It destroys my good mood, both consciously and subconsciously. I’ve spent a good many hours shopping for fancy LED fixtures that can adjust their color temperature with the click of a button, but my good wife has always prevailed upon me that they are too expensive and an unjustifiable expense.

If such a purchase could end our arguments over light temperature, budget would not be a concern. But alas, we do not own this house and we will not be here forever.

What got me thinking about this post (other than wondering when my wife will come home) was something one of my adult English students said to me. Last fall, she travelled to Victoria, BC, to attend an English language school for two weeks. A homestay was part of her package, and she had great things to say about her host family. But she admitted to me that she wasn’t really able to study like she had hoped. Her bedroom had only warmly-colored lamps that were too indirect and dim for her to study from. She told me that she would wake up early every morning so that she could study by the dawn light near the window. She never asked her host family for what she needed.

So, what is the determining factor here? Are Japanese more practically minded? Are Americans more leisure minded? Have Japanese preferences been shaped and confined by a limited and uncreative array of product offerings? Have American preferences been shaped and guided by a commercial notion of what is homey? I think there are many dichotomies between these two cultures that are corollaries of this one. The arrangement of offices – Americans in cubicles with bosses in separate offices and Japanese in banks of desks with the bosses ostentatiously placed at their head. Consider the difference between the typical teachers’ room of a Japanese public school, and the teachers’ lounge of an American one. I’ve been in a few teachers’ lounges in Alaska that put suites in 5-star hotels to shame, stocked with coffee and coronary-inducing snacks. And of course, they were tastefully and warmly lit with standing floor lamps.

For now, my own musings on this are just that. But the study of cultural geography is a real field, and there is no doubting that Japanese homes and Japanese towns and Japanese campgrounds look different than their North American counterparts, and that those differences hew to a certain mean that we can at least try to come close to defining. What is the thread that runs through each system of preferences? What is the essence of these opposing ways of perceiving what is comforting and what is unsettling?

Japan Palmer

Winter Holidays in Japan

A version of this post appears in the Palmer Sister City Newsletter this month.

As I write this, Christmas is fast approaching, and even here in Japan, there are many reminders. Japan celebrates Christmas in the same way it celebrates halloween – as an excuse to have a party, eat a bit of unhealthy food, and a new way for businesses to advertise.

However, because Thanksgiving is completely unknown in Japan, there is nothing to act as a buffer between the spookiness of Halloween and the cheer of Christmas. Any American living in Japan will surely lament an entire November of Christmas music and Santa displays at the grocery store. And once the day does come, it’s celebrated very differently. Living abroad over Christmas time makes one realize the effort that goes into this kind of tradition, and the importance of maintaining it.

Japan has its own Christmas traditions, which may seem rather amusing to someone used to Western-style Christmases:

  • Christmas Eve is romantic. That’s right, the night before christmas is not a night of peaceful reflection and quality time with family. With so few Christians in Japan, the religious meaning isn’t there. It’s a date night, pure and simple.

  • Christmas is all about the Christmas Cake. This tradition of eating a heavy fruit or sponge cake comes from the United Kingdom and the countries of the Commonwealth and is widespread in Japan. While America has a tradition of giving fruitcakes, the Japanese take their cakes much more seriously, often ordering them weeks ahead of time.

  • Christmas is also all about… fried chicken. At some point, it became common knowledge in Japan that this is what you eat on Christmas. Whether it stems from a misunderstanding of the turkey and poultry culinary traditions of the winter holidays, or an genius marketing ploy by KFC, a bucket of fried chicken is how a Japanese family rings in the holiday.

  • Christmas Day is not a national holiday. People go to work, and children go to school. Being raised to think of the day as special and a time for many important things – none of them work – it is very odd to go teach class or sit in an office on Christmas Day as if it were a day like any other.

All of this is not to say that the Japanese do not celebrate family and food and fun over the dark days of winter. A lot of the traditions that Western nations take care of on December 25th are just done a bit later by Japanese families, over the new year. That’s the time when you lie around the house, gain a few pounds from non-stop feasting, and make the long trip home through snowstorms and icy roads to share the physical and spiritual bonds of family. With that to look forward to only a week later, Christmas sounds like a pretty nice excuse for a romantic plate of fried chicken topped off with a slice of cake, doesn’t it?

Japan Palmer Saroma

Saroma Recipe: Tofu Dumplings with Jam Topping


For tofu dumplings with spinach:

  • 80 grams Shiratama-ko rice flour
  • 100 grams soft tofu
For regular tofu dumplings:
  • 80 grams Shiratama-ko rice flour
  • 100 grams soft tofu
Suggested jam toppings: rhubarb jam, strawberry jam, pumpkin jam

Cooking Instructions: (for both types of dumpling)

  1. First, lets prepare the spinach dumplings. Lightly boil the spinach. After boiling, wring out the water and dice it into fine bits.
  2. Add the rice flour to the diced spinach. Then, slowly add tofu to the mixture until it becomes about as soft as an earlobe.
  3. Form the mixture into child bite-sized dumplings, making an indentation in the middle of each with your thumb, which will shorten the cooking time.
  4. Let’s next prepare the regular dumplings, following the above instructions without the spinach.
  5. Insert the dumplings in a pot of boiling water and boil for one minute after they naturally float to the surface. After removing from the boiling water, cool the dumplings in a bowl of cold water.
  6. Place two or three of each type of dumpling on plates, and garnish with your choice of jam.
Watch out for: When mixing the tofu and rice flour, be sure to add the tofu a little at a time so that you can control the hardness and water content of the final mixture. The smoother the dumpling mix turns out, the better the finished product will be.
✦ This recipe is courtesy of Mr. Onishi, the nutritionist at the Saroma Town Hall. The recipe originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of the Saroma Town Magazine. View it in the magazine here. (it’s on the second page of the PDF.)
earthquake Hokkaido Japan

A Cute Hokkaido Power Map

This morning I found a rather interesting infographic pamphlet on my desk from HEPCO, the Hokkaido Electric Power Company.  It contained a very straightforward graphic showing the major sources of power generation on the island of Hokkaido.  I searched for it online, to no avail.  So, I snapped a photo:

With no classes in the morning, I decided I’d try and reproduce the graphic, along with English annotations.  I think I did a pretty good job.  Have a look: (click for a larger version)

I’d say this is a sign I either have too much time on my hands, or perhaps would enjoy a job in graphic design/translation better.

education Japan JET Middle School Tokyo

Depressing Elephants

This year, the Sunshine English textbooks were updated.  One of the new stories is called “Faithful Elephants” and is about the sad end of three elephants at  Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo during WWII:

Many years ago, there were three wonderful elephants at the Ueno Zoo.  The elephants were John, Tonky, and Wanly.  They could do tricks.  Visitors at the zoo loved the see their tricks.

Japan was at war then.  Little by little the situation was getting worse.  Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.

If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.  So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.  Before long, it was time to kill the three elephants.  The zookeepers did not want to kill them, but they had to follow the orders.  They started with John.

John loved potatoes, so they gave him poisoned potatoes together with good ones.  But John was so clever that he ate only the good potatoes.  Then they tried to give him an injection.  But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through.

When this did not work, they decided to give him no food.  Poor John died in seventeen days.

Then the time came for Tonky and Wanly.  They always looked at people with loving eyes. They were sweet and gentle-hearted.

However, the elephant keepers had to stop giving them anything to eat.  When a keeper walked by their cage, they stood up and raised their trunks high in the air.  They did their tricks because they were hoping to get food and water.

Everyone at the zoo said with tears, “If they can live a few more days, the war may be over and they will be saved.”

Tonky and Wanly could no longer move.  They lay down on the ground, but their eyes were beautiful.

When an elephant keeper came to see them, they looked so weak.  He became too sad to go back to see them.

Bombs continued to drop in Tokyo.  And a few days later, Tonky and Wanly died.  Later, when the bodies of the elephants were examined, nothing was found in their stomachs — not even one drop of water.

Today, the three elephants rest in peace with other animals under the monument at the Ueno Zoo.

There are many, many things wrong with this story.  Some grammatical, some stylistic.

However, I’m not concerned with these here.  What I find unacceptable about this story’s inclusion in a textbook approved by MEXT (The Ministry of Education) is that it contains blatant historical inaccuracies, that when taken into consideration, completely undermine the importance of this story as a (purported) piece of history.

First, the story makes several statements or allusions that are simply untrue.  In the second paragraph it says:

Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.

This is false.

Consider this timeline (which I will refer to later on).

  • December 1941 – Attack on Pearl Harbor
  • April 1942 – Doolittle bombing raids on Tokyo
  • August 13th, 1943 – Starvation of John the elephant begins.
  • August 1943 – John dies.
  • September 4th, 1943 – A memorial service is held for all three elephants.
  • September 11th, 1943 – Wanly the elephant dies.
  • September 23rd, 1943 – Tonky the elephant dies.
  • June 15th, 1944 – B-29 Raid on Kyushu launched from China.  The first raid on the Japanese home islands since the Doolittle raid.
  • Nov 17th, 1944 – B-29 raids on Tokyo begin and last until Japan’s surrender.

As you can see from this timeline, Tokyo was not bombed for a full two and a half years during the war – the time that the textbook alleges “Bombs were dropped on Tokyo everyday.”

This fact exposes another inconsistency in the story.  The very next paragraph says:

If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.

Since there were no bombs being dropped, this premise is false.  The paragraph continues:

So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.

If there were no bombs falling on Tokyo, then what was the reason for the killing of the animals?  Even if there were bombs falling, if the bombs landed close enough to damage and open the metal cages, surely this would also injure or kill the animals.  If their safety alone was the concern, then they could have been relocated to the countryside.  There certainly could be other explanations – lack of food, lack of funds to maintain the zoo. After all, this was war.  But of course, as in war, the true story of why, how, and by whom, the elephants were ordered to be killed is more complicated.

A few google searches revealed two useful resources on this incident.  This article in Japan Focus, which chronicles in great detail the power struggle and series of events that led to the elephants’ deaths, and this webpage (in Japanese) devoted to the treatment of zoo animals in wartime.  They both delve much further into the motivations and chronology than I will here in this textbook critique, but their main points are very important:

  • The governor of Tokyo at that time, Odachi Shigeo, had recently returned from a posting as governor of Singapore, where he had seen the war firsthand.  He felt that the people of Japan needed a shock to wake them up to the realities of war, and chose to use the elephants as martyrs to this end.  As zoo director Koda wrote in his memoir about Governor Odachi, “when he returned to the motherland to become governor of Tokyo and saw the attitude of the people, he seems to have felt keenly that he had to open the people’s eyes to the fact that this was not the way to go, that war was not such an easy affair.” (市長をしていた大達さんは、内地に帰って、勝ち戦と思い戦争の怖さも知らないでいる国民に自覚させるために、動物園の猛獣を処分することによって警告を発したのでしょう。)
  • Not only had Fukuda, the acting director of the zoo after Koga, “confidently listed” the amounts of poison needed to kill the elephants, but zoo records show that Tonky had been given injections of medicines and had had blood taken soon before his starvation.  The story in the textbook says “Then they tried to give him an injection.  But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through,” which seems unreasonable considering that injections and blood samples had been easily administered on Tonky.  Why was John different?
  • The story fails to explain why John was the first to go.  As it turns out, John had been a violent elephant, and this was the reason for putting him down first.  The zoo director “decided to put down the violent male elephant, John, and his starvation was begun on August 13th. (暴れん坊のオスのゾウ「ジョン」を処分することを決めて、8月13日より絶食を行う。)
  • Maybe most horrible of all these revelations is that on September 4th, 1943, after John had died, and while Tonky and Wanly were still undergoing forced starvation, a public memorial service was held at the zoo to mourn the deaths of the three elephants.  I repeat: this was while Tonky and Wanly were still starving nearby.

These three elephants may have been wonderful animals.  It’s sad that they ended up as ancillary victims of a human war.  But the true tragedy of this story is not simply in their deaths, but in how they died, in the equivocating, cruel methods used to kill them.  It is completely unexplained in the story, and both of the resources that I found, why the elephants were simply not shot.  Would this not have been more satisfactory, both to the army and the zookeepers?  Excuses are made in the diaries of the zoo director Fukuda, that the noise of the gunshots would “scare” the population.  But, was this not the intended effect?  To “open the people’s eyes” to the hard realities of war?

Due to the textbook’s simplicity and gross inaccuracy, the true, complicated nature of this story as a piece of history, and its moral dimensions of human cruelty, are skirted and warped into a sentimental and dangerously simplified platitude on war and peace.  This whitewashed version of history does not belong in an nationally approved curriculum.  It certainly has no place in an English textbook.

If you use this textbook, and are asked to model-read or deal with this story in class, make sure your students know the whole story.  Help them be critical thinkers.  Help them ask questions about this story and about their own history.  Help them understand not only the story in English, but the critical and skeptical stance that one should bring to any encounter with a new text.


  • Above is a simple presentation that I made and showed to our 3rd grade students after their final reading of the story.  I would recommend showing it to them after their first reading, and then have them reconsider the story with this new information in their subsequent readings.
  • It seems that this story book is somewhat well known in American education circles as well, in the book Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya.  There seem to be lesson plans for this on the internet for the elementary school  level.  I would suggest finding another story that deals with Japan and the war.
festivals Hokkaido Japan JET Saroma

Of Typhoons, Pumpkins and Hornets

It was an exciting weekend. The Saroma Pumpkin Festival took place, as it does every year on the first weekend of September. Every night throughout the week I stopped by the snow removal center to help with the town hall’s float. This year’s theme was One Piece, one of the most popular manga and anime franchises of all time. In traditional fashion, the float was ambitious, a full size pirate ship and a whole host of elaborate costumes spanning nearly all the major characters in the series.


The completed float on Saturday afternoon, before the rain.

Talk frequently turned toward the weather. Typhoon 12 was slowy approaching southwest Japan, and we had no idea what effect it would have on our festival. The main event, the Cinderella Dream Parade, was to take place on Saturday at 6pm, so our fingers were crossed for clear weather for at least that evening. On Friday, while the typhoon was still centered more than 1,000 miles to the south, near Shikoku, Hokkaido was hit by massive rainbands from the outer edge of the storm. Saroma got four inches of rain in a 12 hour period – other areas got much, much more. By Saturday morning, the weather had cleared up, and with the typhoon still a thousand kilometers to the south, moving at a glacial 10 kph, we were all very optimistic.


The Saroma River on Friday afternoon.

Not only was this the weekend of the Pumpkin Festival, it was also the Eastern Welcome Party, which we carefully planned to occur coincidentally with the festival. HAJET and I received permission from Saroma for 50 ALTs to camp in the main park in Saroma near the gymnasium, and the Town Hall parade entry were excited to have several dozen ALTs walking with them behind the float, handing out balloons and participating in the fun.

But then, after a blustery, halfway sunny, spritzy day full of fast moving scud and fleeting suckerholes, dark clouds appeared on the western horizon. It was around 5pm, and from there, our plans basically laid down and died. The pumpkin parade was cancelled, and rescheduled to take place inside the Townspeople Center. That meant we couldn’t use our float. Some people seriously considered not performing at all so that we could reuse our float in next year’s parade. Meanwhile, 50 ALTs were standing around in a quickly darkening unlit BBQ house, already several beers into the evening, two rainy kilometers away from a festival with no parade. Back at my house were Yoshie and her parents. For a few hours, I ran back and forth between the park, the snow removal center, and home. I managed to get the lowdown on the festival plans (parade: not happening; fireworks: maybe happening; band: happening inside), change into my suit and costume, very poorly learn the group dance performance routine, beg and borrow the generator from the float and some lights, and haul them down to the BBQ house to save the foreigners from the inky black of night. All of this in time to make it back in time to dance arrhythmically, catch the kickass fireworks, down a half dozen beers, introduce Yoshie to all the important and great people I work with, high-five three dozen students, and make it back to the house to share some craft beer with Yoshie’s father and blow their minds with a Google Earth iPad tour of Palmer. It had turned out to be a crazy, but remarkably fun evening. We didn’t get to bed until well after midnight, an unusual occurrence for Yoshie’s parents.


My costume was a naval officer from the anime series, who enforces law and order on the pirate-filled seas.  The costume consisted of my regular suit under a borrowed labcoat from the Saroma Clinic with some cleverly applied yellow and blue tape for insignia.  The back of the coat said “正義” or “Justice.”


Saroma’s performance consists of attractice preschool teachers who know how to dance, and then the men of the town hall, who remain in the back clapping and swaying in an uncoordinated  manner.

But I wasn’t done yet. I had to go check on the generator at the BBQ house and make sure everyone was still alive. And of course, stay there until 3am smoking cigars and talking American politics with a very savvy Kiwi guy until the crowd of those still awake dwindled to a point where the generator could be shut off, and I could commence to chase my wet reflection home on deserted, drunken streets.

Then, on Sunday morning, I went outside and got stung in the head by a hornet. It hurt like a bitch and a half, and I was a little worried I might be allergic, since the last time I was stung was when I was 7 or 8 and stepped on a bees’ nest in the Palmer woods. Yoshie and her parents insisted I go to the hospital, so Yoshie drove me into Engaru, about 40 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much my head hurt. The pain just wouldn’t stop. After 30 minutes, we went in to see the doctor. He looked at my head, asked me a few questions, and then said “Ok, we’re going to give you some medicine and put you on an IV.” Not only have I never had an IV before, but I had no idea how you said that in Japanese. So, like an idiot, I said “Okey doke” when he told me that. After I realized, I became more worried about the prospect of getting an intravenous drip for the first time in my life than I was about the darned hornet sting. It’s important to understand that this is an extremely routine and almost blanket treatment in Japanese hospitals. I’ve heard of people heading into the hospital because they feel tired, getting an IV for an hour or so, and heading home feeling pretty good. Well, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable afternoon with my wife. I got to lie down and watch fluid drain into my arm while hornet pain stabbed through my skull, and in the company of Yoshie, it was actually pretty enjoyable. The whole situation was so unexpected, it became a novelty. She even took a picture of me.


There’s a first time for everything.

After the IV finished (I was very worried about air being inadvertently injected into my artery, so I pressed the call button for the nurse really early) we got some prescription cream for my head and paid the bill. After insurance, the total bill was 2,400 yen, about $30 bucks. The real bonus of the trip, that I can thank the hornet for, is that we grabbed kebabs on the way back out of town.

So, I didn’t get to participate in the parade, my ALT friends didn’t get to participate or enjoy the festival at all, I got stung in the head and missed the whole main day of the festival, but I actually had a pretty great weekend.  And today, Mr. Ikeda from the town hall came out to my house in his bee suit and took out the hornet nest that had been in my shed.




Star Alliance Coffee

This morning on my way to Hamasaroma, I stopped off at 7-11 to grab a cold can of coffee for the road. I passed over the expensive and fattening Starbucks lattes-in-a-can and went toward the canned coffee. Since getting back to Japan last week, I’ve noticed some particularly well done commercials on TV for the Boss brand coffee “Zero no Choten.” They were at the top of the shelf and I went to grab one. They all had a special plastic cap on the top containing a bonus toy. I was sure it would be Pokemon or One Piece or something else that I don’t care about, but it was actually something kind of cool. Each can had a mini airplane, each with the livery of a different airline of the Star Alliance.

I bought two:


I opened one of the cans and tasted it. Pretty good coffee in a can. I opened up the included pamphlet and was surprised that the planes come in all 18 different Star Alliance member airlines.

Then, I read further and realized that each plane had a wind up and release gear in it AND a magnet, so that you can wind up the plane, attach it to the side of the can, and watch it fly itself in circles around the can!


Your purchase gives you a chance to win a round the world trip with Star Alliance, emphasizing that they are the largest of the major airline alliances (though probably not the best with the inclusion of United and US Airways) and can indeed take you around the world, just as easily as their miniature planes can fly around your coffee can!
It’s nothing short of marketing genius.

So, on the way home from work, I went back to 7-11 and cleaned them out, bringing my collection to 12 of the 18 collectible designs.



Also, I guess there are two can packs that contain larger and nicer airplane models. I’ll be on the lookout for those!

(Note: This is my first post made entirely from my iPhone. Pretty neat!)

Update: I managed to find some of the two-can packs that contain a larger and more realistic steel model. There are six different types of model and I found five:


Alaska earthquake family Japan Palmer Saroma tsunami

Letter from Saroma

A shorter version of this piece appears in the April 1st edition of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

On Friday, March 11th, I had three English classes at Hamasaroma Elementary School, a school of 29 students on the shore of Lake Saroma.  The day’s classes were my last of the Japanese school year, which ends in March.  The goal of the lessons was to have fun, and we did.  The younger grades played a treasure hunt game for which I dressed up like a pirate.  The other grades played a rock paper scissors battle game in the gym, and a very rowdy game of “Pit.”  At recess I played badminton and practiced riding a unicycle.

I have lived in Saroma for three years, working as the town’s Assistant English Teacher.  Saroma has been Palmer’s sister city since 1980, and has hired the English teacher directly from Palmer since 1994, making me, as a 2002 Palmer High graduate, the sixth Palmerite to hold the position.  I visit all of the schools from preschool to high school in this farming and fishing town of 5,900 people in the north of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese islands.  Saroma often reminds me of Alaska, with its frigid winters, wide summer skies, fields of hay, and the independent, resourceful people.  Saroma feels like home.

When my last class ended at 2:05 PM, I returned to the teachers’ room, got a cup of coffee, and began writing my lesson notes for the day.  After such a wonderful day of classes, I felt like the week and the school year were coming to a perfect end.  The week before I had just agreed to another year of teaching in Saroma, and the week before that I had become engaged to my Japanese girlfriend of several years.  All was right in my world as the clock struck 2:46.

At first it was slow and smooth, then rattling, then smooth again, like an airliner in the minutes after takeoff.  The earthquake as I felt it in Saroma lasted about two minutes.  Some of us got under our desks, but no one seemed particularly concerned, and when it finished there had been no damage at all.  Having felt dozens of earthquakes growing up in Palmer, I guessed it was a magnitude 6 or 7, perhaps located somewhere north, in Russia.

The vice principal turned on the TV, where the first images shown were of shaking TV studios in Sendai and Tokyo.  It was obvious that it had been strong, but that those cities were still intact.  Then the epicenter was announced off the coast of the Tohoku region in Honshu, Japan’s main island, over 400 miles to the south.  Tsunami warnings and watches were quickly issued for nearly the entire 18,000 mile coastline of Japan, including the Sea of Okhotsk near Saroma.  Several teachers immediately got in their cars and drove off to make sure students who had already walked home for the day arrived home safely.

The rest of the staff remained in the teachers’ room and watched the rising waters gradually swell to violent torrents, live and in crystal-clear high definition.  We slowly grew hushed as we realized the gravity of what was occurring.  To say it was like watching a disaster movie isn’t accurate.  It was worse.  I had been to those places, I had friends near those places, and I knew that these astounding images were happening as I watched, many which were cut away from quickly and never replayed in the following days because they were too disturbing.  I could imagine myself in that place, in their shoes.  Yet, out my window, the day seemed to continue as it had before.

Even though Saroma was spared from this disaster, the genuine concern expressed by the people of Palmer and all of my friends outside of Japan has been extremely touching.  My mother couldn’t believe how many people called her or stopped by to ask about me once they heard about a quake in “northeast Japan.”  Tohoku, the area hit by the tsunami, literally means “northeast” and from Tokyo, the capital, it is northeast.  However, Hokkaido and Saroma are farther northeast by hundreds of miles.  This caused family and friends at home to experience some unnecessary worry as well as get an impromptu lesson in Japanese geography.

While Saroma was not at all damaged and its people are doing fine, the town has experienced its share of natural disasters.  In October of 2006, over a foot of rainfall in 24 hours caused the Saroma River to swell over its banks, damaging large portions of downtown.  One month later a tornado hit the neighborhood of Wakasa, killing nine people, injuring 31 and destroying 38 houses.  It was the first tornado in Japan’s recorded history to take lives.  The next week a magnitude 8.3 earthquake off of the Kuril Islands prompted coastal evacuations in Saroma and caused a 10 inch tsunami on the Sea of Okhotsk. The same evacuations were repeated the next month, in January 2007, when a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit the same area.

Disasters, however unwelcome, have the power to bring us together.  In a time of such crisis, the differences between nations and cultures seem to dissolve as our shared humanity is reaffirmed.  This sense of shared existence, solidarity and deep empathy that so many around the world now feel for the people of Japan is what Saroma and Palmer have been building steadily for over thirty years, through hundreds of personal experiences, friendships, gestures of goodwill and shared commitment.  Times like this remind us how important these connections are that we have built.  In normal times they might seem inconsequential.  Some people might ask why they are necessary.  But they are real.

The full effects of this disaster are still being understood, but surely the Japanese deserve credit for their own preparation toward the inevitable, unpredictable menace of earthquakes and tsunami.  The evacuation routes, warning systems, and awareness education surely saved many more lives than were lost.  Alaska, three thousand miles clockwise from Japan along the Pacific Ring of Fire, can learn from their preparedness.

As the aftermath continues to unfold, I’ve noticed a big difference in the news coverage from within Japan and abroad.  For example, the threat from the nuclear reactors in Fukushima is grave, but the reporting on it has largely overshadowed the more immediate tragedy being endured by hundreds of thousands of people on the ground.  Foreign media outlets, particularly American cable news networks, have engaged in a lot fearful speculation regarding the nuclear threat.  While Japan grapples with half a million homeless and 28,000 dead or missing, there have been no deaths related to the Fukushima plant, radiation levels outside of Japan’s designated 20km evacuation radius are within safe levels, and the government continues to exercise extreme caution regarding the inspection of food produced in the area.  It’s a distraction from the more pressing human problem.

Life continues as it has before, but the television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.

Here in Saroma, we have felt like many Americans have: unaffected, far away, and wondering how we can help.  Saroma has already sent monetary aid to the affected area, and has accepted two families displaced by the disaster.  Voluntary gasoline rationing and electricity saving measures have been in effect.  Hokkaido now has a surplus of electricity which is being sent to Honshu to compensate.  Over the last two weeks the Japanese have used 20% less electricity than over the same period last year, due to efforts to conserve.  Rolling blackouts have largely been avoided.  While essential items like toilet paper, water, and instant noodles have been disappearing from shelves in Tokyo, such items are plentiful here.  The only bare shelves I have seen are for yogurt, as many of those factories are in the Tohoku region.

Life in Saroma continues much as before, although everyone’s minds are still on the disaster.  Television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.  Regular TV programming has returned, but news programs continue with report after report.  Commercials have also slowly started to be played again, although public service announcements account for the majority, with major stars giving messages like “I believe in the power of Japan.”

This morning’s news programs had report after report related to the ongoing situation. People sleep in their cars because their pets are not allowed inside evacuation centers and they refuse to abandon them.  An old man provides transportation of goods and people on his boat, out at sea during the tsunami, even though his own house is destroyed.  Community groups search through the rubble daily for family photos, cleaning, drying, and displaying them on the walls in local evacuation centers, trying to help salvage their former lives.  In all the myriad media coverage, I have not heard one single complaint, not one outburst of anger or incident of selfish behavior.  People are meeting difficulty with unfathomable integrity.

The hardship continues for the hundreds of thousands still homeless, for those who still have not found their loved ones, for those uncertain of their future.  Pessimism comes easy to some, and I have heard numerous grave predictions about Japan’s future.

They are wrong.  Japan is already recovering.  The Great Kanto Expressway, parts of which were demolished during the quake, was rebuilt and reopened only six days later.  After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed 6,500 people, Japan’s economy actually grew.  I think that meeting the challenge of reconstruction could usher in a new age in Japan, pulling it out of the past two decades of malaise and perhaps fostering a new willingness to confront the country’s big problems.  The disaster might seem unimaginably large, but I trust in one resource that the earthquake and tsunami did not destroy: the ingenuity, cooperation, and resourcefulness of Japan’s people.  The people of Tohoku need our help, but Japan as a nation will emerge stronger.

I was spared from this disaster.  I don’t believe in luck, yet I feel incredibly lucky to know this country and its people, a place that has been my home for the better part of my adult life.  The Japanese people deserve our prayers, our respect, and our support.  Let’s give it to them.


30th Anniversary Alaska Hokkaido Japan Japanese Palmer Saroma trains travel

Palmerites Visit Saroma

I always encourage my friends to visit.  I like having visitors and I think it’s even more important to do so here in such a small town.  Nik, my predecessor, told me that he never got many visitors to Saroma.  This left me less than optimistic about friends visiting me, here in this far-flung remnant of empire, this village isolated from all but the rare fishing boat or mining expedition, where humans struggle against nature’s cruel chorus, their pitiful dwellings windswept and beaten from a hundred angry winters and their meager chattel at the mercy of gaunt, desperate vermin – a forsaken crag of hubris built upon the very precipice of earthly existence, unto which only the forlorn souls of broken men venture forth.

Wait, I think I’m talking about Russia, a little further north.

Saroma is actually quite accessible, with well-maintained roads, punctual trains and affordable air connections.  It’s still a little far away from happenin’ Tokyo and hip Sapporo, and that’s why I consider myself lucky to have received numerous drop-ins over the 19 months I have lived here: Hannah and Yoshi; Ilkka and Petri; Natsuko; Remmington; Jon; Roxy and Daisy, and two weeks ago, Mike and Alissa.

I’ve known Mike and Alissa for about as long as I’ve been able to sentiently know other beings.  Alissa and I were consistent and reliable line leaders in Mrs. Butler’s 2nd grade class at Swanson Elementary.  Mike and I created several award-winning high school video masterpieces.

30th Anniversary Japan Saroma

Saroma Town Proper

One thing that is difficult for an American to grasp when visiting Japan is municipal divisions. Most of America is unincorporated, middle-of-nowhere spaces. Once you enter a town or city, you are then technically “somewhere” more specific than the state you are in. In Japan, every piece of land is part of a village, town, or city.  Throw a dart at a map of Japan, and as long as you don’t end up in the ocean, you’ll be in some specific municipality, even if the dart lands somewhere in the mountains.  Saroma is no different.  The map below shows the town limits of Saroma, and the neighboring towns that share the same border.


This makes it hard to compare the two towns. Saroma has strictly defined borders, and thus a nearly exact count of population within them. Palmer, on the other hand, might have a defined population within city limits, but a fairly vague number for the greater Palmer area.  It’s this greater area that really should be compared with Saroma.  If one simply looks at the official populations of the two municipalities and makes assumptions from there, it is difficult to see why Palmer has a McDonald’s, a Dairy King, a Taco Bell and two huge supermarkets, but Saroma has no fast food restaurants and only two modest supermarkets.

To help one visualize Saroma and the population density within Saroma that determines these sort of economic factors, I’ve made the following map showing the area and shape of Saroma’s boundaries superimposed over a map of the Palmer area.


Imagine that within that red line, there are 6,002 people.  That is the population density of Saroma.  If the Palmer city limits were this size and shape, I imagine the population would be closer to 15,000.

Some quick facts:

Saroma: 414 km² (156 mi²), Pop. 6,002.

Palmer: 9.7 km² (3.8 mi²), Pop. 8,201 (2008 estimate)

Map data from Google and Yahoo.

added April 12th: Butte centered size comparison map for my mommy.