It was summer of 2006, I was walking barefoot on the hot pavement of the Hirosebashi, Japan’s very first bridge made out of reinforced concrete, which dates back to the 1600s. Decades of rapid economic development followed by the economic bubble bursting in the 1990s have found expression in roads, skyscrapers, and steel and iron bridges running across the nation’s rivers. This sturdy, well-constructed bridge in the heart of the city of Sendai exemplifies many of the industrious traits of this sophisticated island country. But unlike the downtown area, where seas of people churned through the alleys created by modern high-rises, where I stood on that summer day was quite the opposite. The mountains towered harmoniously over houses and schools dotting the landscape, and the scenery provided a sense of solace and peace.
On this particular day, however, the historical significance of Hirosebashi and the unrivaled view of the nature meant absolutely nothing to me. I was too occupied with the burning pain caused by blisters from walking for hours in my excessively bright yellow Californian flip-flops. I was late to meet with my friend at her alma mater, Tohoku University. And I was lost.
As I searched through my bag for the small map my friend had drawn for me a day earlier, I started getting ready to declare myself the most direction-disoriented person on earth. That’s when I heard the voices. No, not the kind that run through your head when you’re dehydrated. These were the voices of children. I peeked over the bridge and saw two families having a picnic by the river, and a mother was helping one of the boys after swimming in the river. With his hair still dripping wet, he looked up, and our eyes met. I felt awkward, as if I had intruded on a private family gathering. But just as I was about to turn my head away, the little boy smiled and waved with two hands in the air. Reflexively, I smiled and waved back under the summer sunlight.
That was it—a brief interaction between strangers. I had completely forgotten about the little boy until witnessing the horrific pictures of the ruins of Sendai after the earthquake and tsunami. The natural disaster has destroyed more than a land; it has changed the lives of those who once called it home, and it has affected the perspectives of the young and old about the future. Yet, the Japanese people’s strategic and harmonious effort in responding to the crisis has also revealed one of the many strengths of this nation. And the disaster can never ruin the intangibles—like a memory of a moment of tranquility and connection.