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Janet Langhart Cohen

Janet Langhart Cohen

Posted: March 23, 2011 05:24 PM

Remembering Isao


While events of the day are forcing the world's attention away from Japan to Operation Odyssey Dawn and the bombing of Libya, my thoughts are still with the people of Japan.

The triple tragedies there, have saddened and worried much of the world with questions of:

  • How many people are lost?
  • How many will be found?
  • How widespread is the nuclear fall out and will it affect us here in North America?


For those with family and friends in Japan the horrendous occurrences were more than just 'Breaking News'. They are heart breaking nightmares.

In 1966 as a young woman living and working in Chicago, I met a Japanese physics student who had come to America to study Nuclear Science. We became fast friends and enjoyed discussing all he knew about nuclear science. His name was Isao.

I think it was the first discussion I'd ever had on anything nuclear. Ironically, the subject would become a real part of my world years later as a journalist covering the threat at Three Mile Island.

Isao, was the same age as I. He was very young during the Second World War when America dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Harry S. Truman made the decision after Japan refused to surrender.

The president felt dropping the bombs would end the war quickly, avoid a land invasion and save American lives.

I asked Isao how he felt about the devastating bombs reigned on his country by mine, was there anger, did he hate us?

He was quiet, then answered:

'We Japanese have a saying for when things happen that are out of our control. 'Shigata Ga Nai.' It has happened, it has passed, soldier on.'

His way of moving on was to learn as much as he could about a bad situation and turn it into something positive. Isao was committed to using nuclear power for energy, not destruction.

I was never in the same league as Isao when it came to anything scientific or mathematical. However, he did teach me how to count to five in Japanese: 'Ichi, ni, san, shi, go.'

Isao also introduced me to one of my favorite delicacies: Japanese food. He taught me how to use chopsticks and he'd laugh as I fumbled to lift sushi and tempura from rice bowl to mouth. We'd both laugh!

Isao and I would share stories of our disparate histories, much of mine was angrily unfolding.
The 1960's were turbulent times in America, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were dividing the country.

He told me about the great conflicts in ancient Japan and how much was resolved by the great courage and honor of the Samurai Warriors who existed as early as the 9th century. He spoke with pride and sadness of the selfless bravery of the young Japanese pilots sent on suicide missions during World War II to fight against a formidable enemy.

Curiously, the brave and selfless efforts of the workers toiling today at the damaged Fukushima Daiji Nuclear Power Plant have been characterized as being on suicide missions as they valiantly fight another formidable enemy, radiation.

It's been more than 40 years since I last saw or spoke to Isao but lately he and his country have been dominating my thoughts and prayers.

I worried if Isao had been shaken by the quake, hit by the Tsunami or living within a 50 mile radius of the nuclear power plants? Was he even alive?

If alive, Isao would be nearly 70 years old. He could have been one of the sorrowful elder faces I saw on television trying to make some sense of a terrible force of nature that had wrecked their lives. Leaving them homeless as they attempted to rescue and recover loved ones.

Many have been in awe watching the orderly, dignified way the Japanese people patiently stood in long lines for food, water and gas, despite the scarcity and the cold weather. However, if you've ever visited Japan or known anyone from there you'd know that politeness, respect and order are part of the Japanese custom and tradition. It is about 'Kanji', honor. It would be dishonorable to behave any other way, even in the face of adversity.

The news from Japan continues to worsen with a rising death toll. Smoke continues to billow from the nuclear plants. Now there is evidence of contaminated food and water. At times, even the winds have turned on Japan.

Despite all of this, I believe in the enduring spirit of the Japanese people, those who live in the Land of the Rising Sun.

"It has happened, it will pass, they will soldier on."