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Mr. Everyman, Japan Style

By David Lammers

My wife’s sister, Takako, now 57, and her husband Kiyoshi, live in Fukushima City. I got to know them when I married, back in 1983, and over the years they have provided me with a close-up view of what living in Japan means. Now that the nuclear meltdowns have occurred just 40 miles or so from their house, that takes on a new meaning.

Mieko and her extended family are from Niigata prefecture, near the Japan Sea. Kiyoshi is from Fukushima, and when he and Takako-san met during college and married, she moved there and became a nurse at a hospital. Later, Mieko’s mother retired from her nursing job in Niigata prefecture and moved to Fukushima, where she lives now in a nursing home.

It was Kiyoshi, a broad-shouldered man, who provided me with a window into Mr. Everyman, Japan style. After we married, Mieko and I were blessed with four children over seven years. We lived in western Tokyo, and every few months over 15 years we would pile into our pale green Mazda station wagon and drive the five hours to Fukushima City, northeast of Tokyo.

There, Kiyoshi, Takako, and their three children lived in the second story of the extended family’s house, just a few steps away from a shrine where our children could run around. Kiyoshi’s parents, later joined by Mieko’s mother, lived downstairs.

When I first met him, Kiyoshi ran a Shell station in Fukushima, fixing cars and pumping gas (Japan was not a self-service nation back then). After Japan’s economy went into a downturn, Shell Japan took an unusual step. Rather than fire workers, Shell  asked them to go door-to-door selling electronic back massagers to the elderly in the area. After a long day at the station, Kiyoshi would dutifully go out several evenings to peddle the vibrating massagers. He didn’t like it much, but he did it.

Later, he got a better-paying job with a company making plastic molding machines. That turned out to be another view of modern Japan. One by one, the company’s customers moved their manufacturing operations out of high-cost Japan, to China and elsewhere. As a field service person, at first Kiyoshi often spent weekdays away from home teaching customers how to maintain their equipment. Then even that dried up, as there were few customers that did manufacturing in Japan.

Again, he switched jobs, getting up at 3 a.m. to deliver bottles of milk to homes. After several years of that, he now works at a Volvo car dealership in Fukushima.

These past 28 years, as Takako struggled with pancreatic problems that required surgery and as Kiyoshi adapted to Japan’s changing economy, they have dealt with many of the same issues that people everywhere face. How to pay for college. How to care for elderly parents. How to get along with and support each other, in good times and in bad.

Kiyoshi, perhaps because he was mechanically inclined, provided a good contrast to my wordsmithing job writing about electronics. We enjoyed seeing our children getting to know each other, taking them on weekend beach vacations and the like. We drank, barbecued, photographed, and talked, bridging the language barrier somehow with mutual understandings.

It was ironic. Being a Japanese, in a country which has a reputation for lifetime employment, Kiyoshi was the one who was forced to change jobs. And the economic shifts wore on him.

Now, with radioactive material spewing forth, I worry about them, and about Mieko’s elderly mother. Fortunately, they have geography somewhat on their side. The Fukushima Daiichi power plant is near the ocean. Fukushima City, which has perhaps half a million people, is ringed by mountains. Sitting in a bowl, our hope is that the toxins won’t breach the mountains.

Kiyoshi and Takako briefly evacuated, driving to an aunt’s house in Tokyo for the weekend after the quake. Then they turned around and went back to Fukushima, where they are now. It is almost impossible to get gas in that region — fuel is being saved for the emergency vehicles. As a car man, that is probably hard on Kiyoshi, but at least he is alive. I imagine he is one of those Fukushima residents standing in line, patiently waiting for bottles of water and other essentials.

Like all Japanese, Kiyoshi grew up with earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, and the like. It is a culture that has prospered because people take care of each other, don’t much admire greed and ego-driven behavior, and work hard to survive. This is just another test, presented by Nature, though an extraordinarily tough one.

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