He’s a farmer now, but for decades my father was a high-flying international businessman. Even now he is frequently asked – “is there any country you haven’t been to?” and “what’s the most beautiful country in the world?”
Growing up, I was always aware my father had a particular fondness for the Japanese. From the early 70s until his retirement in 2003 he travelled to Japan several times a year, working conferences and trade shows, visiting customers and soaking up the culture. Whatever the weather, my dad peppers his phone messages with a ‘hi dozo!’ and always an ‘arigato gozaimashita!’
Business etiquette has probably relaxed, but back in the day knowing the nuances of a culture - how not to accidentally offend, how to hit the mark with small gestures - was essential, and in places like Japan where manner and custom are so highly regarded, how one handled relationships in and outside the boardroom was often a deal breaker.
In 1992 when I was a junior in high school my father was invited to give a talk to one of my classes about the culture and people of Japan. He started with a question to capture his teen audience’s attention - what do the capitals of Japan (Tokyo) and Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, where my high school was) have in common?
We all waited.
They share a coordinate in their respective positions on the globe: latitude of 35 degrees north.
Well how bout that, we all thought. OKC and Tokyo sittin’ on the same latitude.
It’s been nearly a week since I woke up last Friday to a deeply alarming frenzy of tweets about a massive earthquake in Japan – a tsunami imminent. The series of colossal blows Japan has suffered since, and continues to suffer with the very possible growing reality of complete nuclear meltdown is more than I can remember any country going through in my lifetime.
I asked my dad, Michael A McDonnell, 69, what’s been running through his head since last Friday, watching the aftermath of the tsunami unfold.
He said: “It is an epic tragedy for the Japanese. I knew immediately they had dramatically underestimated the death toll because travelling in that area many years ago - I had a customer up in Sendai - you see along the coast it’s littered with small low-lying villages. There are mountains, but there are villages nestled in the valleys and beside estuaries. Those have all been wiped out. Gone.
“The Japanese people will respond in a very measured way and be very efficient in how they resolve the problems, rid the debris and get back to normal life. They are a unitary type of society, they follow instructions and rarely break with tradition. They are well known for doing things in mass, supporting the cause.
"I was there in 1995 for the earthquake in Kobe and I saw a lot of destruction. Hell, two years later you'd never know it had happened, it was all rebuilt, but this is unimaginably worse.
“The Japanese are a noble people, innovative and private in the way they pursue everything in life. They never make rash decisions and, in my view they are very calculated in how they go after every venture – and this is one of catastrophic levels. Certainly WWII had an impact, however just from the memory of all those little fishing villages along the coast, the magnitude of this is so great - I think it will be measured as one of the greatest tragic events in Japanese history.
“You don’t hear of looting or anything like that in Japan in this crisis. They have noble instincts, great honour and dignity. They are courteous, mannerly, respectful of others and protective of their own, of course. They are getting such a huge response from the rest of the world because of the respect held for them outside Japan.”
Going through old photos looking for ones to scan to me for this post, my father found a letter “from my dear friend, Dr Tatsuya Yamaguchi, which he sent me after the Oklahoma City Bombing [in 1995].”
My father said: “It’s ironic that I came across it now. I got several letters at the time, but for some reason I kept this one. Probably because it is reflective of the concern these fine people have for humanity.”
A message from my father's Japanese contact after reading this post:
"Ganbare Nippon, Ganbare Tohoku"
(Let's fight Japan, north east region of Japan let's fight)
Images: Delegation from Mitsui, Japan (1988); Greeting the president of Mitsui at the Waldorf Astoria (1979); Argus (1976); tuna in a Tokyo fish market and letter from Tatsuya Yamaguchi sent May 16, 1995 - almost exactly one month after the Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995.
Thank you travelmath.com for latitude information