Furusato is a Japanese word for which there really is no direct equivalent in English. Most times it is translated as ‘home town’, and the sentiment is similar. It means the place where you grew up, the place where you come from. The place where a part of you, however small, yearns to return to,
I have mostly lived outside of Japan for the last couple of decades - for most of my adult life in fact. And I spent quite a bit of my childhood in other places too. But still, Japan is my furusato. I may take up permanent residency in other countries, and spend most of my days communicating in other languages, but my heart remains Japanese. This was brought home to be in full, blinding force one year ago, March 11, 2011.
As I sat numbly, the TV news footage bringing endless pictures of the devastation, and the internet buzzing with the horror of the disaster, I felt such overwhelming grief that everything else ceased to exist.
For the next couple of weeks, I managed to live with the pain the feeling of helplessness by immersing myself in the role of an impromptu gatherer and dispenser of news. In between bouts of tweeting news and outrage, I spent my time huddled virtually around the live streams provided by NHK News and other Japanese sources with my fellow expatriates. We called ourselves the kaigaigumi (海外組), the overseas team. We exchanged notes on how long we’d been living outside of Japan, why we left, when we were going back. For some of us, we knew that we were never really going back permanently. But we were still all Japanese.
I flew to Japan as soon as I could (or as soon as the airlines would let me) to be with my family there. And for the next three months, I again immersed myself in a different way in gathering news, writing about it, letting people know that life in Japan outside of the disaster-struck areas was back to normal for the most part.
At the time, I felt that my role in life going forward was being defined. I have been writing about Japanese food and cooking, and the culture behind it, for a few years now on this site, on JustBento  and elsewhere. As someone with one foot in Japanese culture and the other in a mishmash of European and American cultures, with an equal understanding of both Japanese and English, I felt that I could perhaps help to bridge the yawning gap of understanding that I saw between the two.
But then, a couple of weeks before I was due to leave Japan to go back to France, I started bleeding heavily. (Truth be told I hadn’t been feeling well even before that, since about late 2010. I felt so weak during my U.S. book trip last January that I was barely able to remain standing. Peeps who met me in Seattle and New York, if I looked pasty to you that’s why!) Soon after returning I was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, and found out I had cancer.
Besides the cancer, it’s really been a full year of incidents. My father passed away in New York in late November - the news of which reached me via my cousin Masato literally 10 minutes after I got home from the hospital after having a hysterectomy. My mother fell down and hurt her leg badly, and was unable to walk for weeks. Our house is still undergoing major renovation, which had to stop for a while due to my illness and so on, and we’re still living in just two rooms with no kitchen. And just a couple of weeks ago, after returning from my father’s memorial service, we found out our house had been robbed in our absence.
And that cancer thing, it’s a bear to live with. I started my first week of a six-week course of radiation therapy (a small dose every day from Monday to Friday) last Monday, and I am already feeling the side effects. I feel okay most of the time, but I never know when I’m going to be felled by debilitating fatigue, for which the only temporary cure is a long nap. And there’s that pesky thing called diarrhea too, which may or may not be caused by the radiation. My surgery wound hasn’t closed up yet either, which is a pain in the, well, abdomen, literally.
Still, I actually do feel a lot better than I did just a few months ago. And the end does seem to be in sight somehow.
In any case, it has been quite a year. This spring, I won’t be able to be in Japan due to my radiation therapy, so I’ll miss out on the ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. I hope to make it there for a couple of months at least in the fall.
I see the eastern part of the Tohoku region continuing to slowly recover, continuing to struggle. I see the lingering uncertainty and worries about the residual radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accidents. (Although I would really like to remind people, especially the overseas news media, that Fukushima is not the only ‘story of note’ one year hence.) And there is the other, bigger worry of another major earthquake hitting Japan, this one perhaps closer to Tokyo.
I know that one person’s struggle is so unimportant compared to the struggles of thousands, but somehow I can’t help selfishly equating the efforts in Japan to get back to normal, and to move ahead and look forward to the future, with my own.
I think we will both be okay. And soon, I hope I can continue on my mission, to bridge the cultural gap in some small way between my furusato and the world.
There is a song called Furusato that is taught in all Japanese schools and such. Many people regard it as Japan’s second national anthem, and perhaps a better one than the official anthem, much in the way some Americans regard America The Beautiful as a better alternative national anthem than the warrlike Star Spangled Banner. (Japan’s official national anthem, Kimi Ga Yo, is a dreary dirge that sends wishes to the emperor that he may live a long, long life.) The first verse of Furusato goes something like this:
The mountain where I chased rabbits
The stream where I fished
I still dream
Of the place I cannot forget, my furusato
I was born and grew up in Tokyo. I never chased rabbits in the mountains, and only went fishing once - and hated it. But that song still tugs at my heart, and makes me want to take the first flight available back to Japan.
Here is the great Placido Domingo singing Furusato at a concert last April.
And here is a mass concert coordinated by an NPO called Kizuna Japan . They came up with a project to have people donate musical instruments to schoolchildren in the Tohoku area who had lost their instruments in the earthquake and tsunami. The concert was arranged as a way for the children to say thank you to the donators. They are singing Furusato. (The video is sponsored by Charity White , a charity set up by Softbank.)
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
— Emily Dickenson