How do we cultivate a heart for justice, both in ourselves and in the hearts of those we influence?
As we sipped on authentic green tea, my Japanese friend and I explored this issue while looking back on her life. The tea was not the bagged American version, but the real thing. I had experienced it dozens of times when living in Japan. Pungent, transporting.
As Akemi shared with me, I could tell that she, too, found herself transported to an earlier time when life may have been simpler. To the small ocean side village of Tabuse, not far from well-known Hiroshima. A fishing village boasting fewer than 20,000 residents, but also the birthplace of two former Japanese Prime Ministers, which helped put it on the map of the Japanese consciousness.
Akemi, the oldest of three children, was so active in the womb that her father was certain she would be a boy. Not wanting to disappoint, she recalls referring to herself as boku, the Japanese word for “I” used exclusively by males, until she was in second grade.
Early on, Akemi developed a strong sense of justice and compassion. She remembers living with her paternal grandparents when young. She was a kongaishi, a child born out of wedlock. Only after her mom became pregnant did her parents marry.
“This was not common at the time, you know. Not at all!” Perhaps because of this, there were many challenges with her father’s siblings. Akemi caught her mother crying a lot, and that was tough. Only five years old, she spoke up. “If you make my mom cry, I don’t want you in my house!” The aunts obliged.
When Akemi’s parents married, they were quite poor. But her dad, Tomohiro, who had ventured into his own car maintenance business, was determined to build his own home. In time, they did, and then they were even able to build a second home, right next to the store, as his business grew. Suddenly, they found themselves in the middle class.
When they were in the more traditional living arrangement, young Shizuko could see how her mom played a secondary role, often keeping her mouth shut, doing the household chores. But how her mother changed as they moved into their own place! Shizuko recalls how her mom finally began to get her own life, and to grow in confidence.
The green tea cup empty, Akemi asked me if I’d like some more. Certainly!
The second or third time around, as the tea has steeped longer, the aroma is more biting. It is the green tea diehard, the true Japanophile, that sticks with it. At least, that’s true if it’s the real thing.
I asked her about culture. How does she define it?
A Definition of Culture
“I think it’s the backbone of nationality. But I don’t think that people are always a product of their own culture.”
This was a thought-provoking response. What, exactly, did she mean?
“The stories of two people changed my thinking on this culture issue. One day, when I was pretty young, there was a severe storm that led to a long blackout. We were listening to the battery-powered radio, and I heard the story of Chiune Sugihara. He actually was like a Japanese Schindler, from Schindler’s List, you remember?”
A Japanese Schindler
“This man, who was Japanese Ambassador (or Vice Counsel) to Lithuania during WWII, was instrumental in smuggling thousands of Jews out of Lithuania, Poland and other countries controlled by the Nazis, where they would have faced almost certain death.”
“He put his career, his family, his very life on the line. What he did shocked me. How could somebody think so much about others? It totally changed my thinking.”
An Inspirational College President
The other person who influenced Akemi’s thinking was Kazuko Watanabe, at 39 and a nun, the first Japanese President of Notre Dame University in Okayama, Japan. “Many people have a problem with her, because she spoke out and spoke her mind. But she was doing some amazing, inspirational things, including writing and interpreting when Mother Teresa visited Japan.”
Turned out that both of these role models possessed a deep faith that made an impact on Akemi’s thinking. And upon her concepts of justice.
“I don’t know if I will be called upon to stand up for others like these two people have. But they are my role models. And I know that if it is necessary, I can remember the examples they set for me.”
The tea is finished, but my thoughts will continue to steep after this thought-provoking discussion.
What role models have prompted a commitment to justice in your life? Please share about them with us here.
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