They say dark skies are omens of dark things to come.
In predominantly patriarchal Japan, my former kouchou-sensei (principal) was a woman. My current kouchou-sensei is also a woman. I never quite understood its magnitude. “Big deal,” I nonchalantly thought. Perhaps it was because I am from a place where women are very powerful, liberated and opinionated or perhaps, and embarrassingly so, because I am a man.
It was only until I was conversing with one of my female Japanese friends was I able to fully comprehend the significance of having a woman as the head of a school in inaka (rural) Japan. From that day, I was very proud to be working at my school- a progressive place where everyone was equal, where women and men stood shoulder to shoulder, where little girls had role models and where boys learnt about respect.
I woke up at 7am this morning, stretched, yawned and stretched again. I stumbled out of my bed, pulled my beige drapes apart. I peered out of the windows and looked at the very gloomy sky. It looked sad I thought.
I had a simple breakfast, showered and then got dressed. Fifteen minutes later, I left my small apartment. A cold breeze whisked past me. The sad sky then began to weep gently. I opened my orange umbrella, sheltering myself from the grey sky’s tears.
Ten minutes later, I entered my school’s building. Something was very different today. Instead of the normal chattering of high school students and ohayos (Good mornings) from co-workers, there was a seemingly never-ending line of people with video cameras, microphones, memo pads meandering their way from the glass front doors along the usually jovial corridors.
“It’s official,” I told myself.
Thirteen days ago, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated Christchurch, New Zealand and all that remained after was silence, painful memories and people’s dreams forever gone.
Sometime last year, I was heading to Toyama City to spend a day by myself. As I entered the train I noticed my former kouchou-sensei, nicely dressed as she always was and wearing a broach as she always did. I quickly walked up to her, smiled, said “Konnichiwa” and took the free seat opposite of her. We began chattering about everything; she was practicing her English and I was butchering Japanese. She told me that she had started learning English and wanted to keep studying. I complimented her English and she, as most Japanese do, blushed and humbly denied her ability.
Time quickly went by and without knowing it the train momentarily stopped at Toyama Station, we exited, bowed, wished each other a good day and said our goodbyes. That was the last time I would ever see her.
My kouchou-sensei is one of the many people who unexpectedly lost their lives in the recent tragedy in New Zealand. A deep sadness hovers over my school today because we have all lost someone that touched each and everyone of us.
It has been particularly difficult for everyone because a few days after the earthquake we were all told she had been rescued. We were relieved that a miracle had happened and our kouchou-sensei was alive. Some days later, we received conflicting news that it wasn’t our principal. A horrible error had been made, shocked engulfed everyone, hope slowly slipping away.
And today it’s official. She is gone.
I had also told myself that she was no longer with us but like everyone, there was always that minute amount of hope. Miracles do happen, they have happened but the somberness that now lingers over my school reveals the reality.
An earthquake and life isn’t very different. Both unpredictable, both surprising us when we least expect it, and both forever shaking our very foundation but we always, we must, find a way to move on.
Before my kouchou-sensei left for New Zealand with a broken hand, she had written a letter to the graduating classes, which was read last week, saying how happy she was to go to New Zealand and follow her dreams.
As unexpected and devastatingly painful her passing is, as much as our hearts ache to hear the truth, as much as tears gloss our sad eyes, she left us a memory of endless smiles and the eternal notion that no matter how old we are, we should always pursue our dreams.
Rest in Peace Hirauchi-sensei.