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Summer 2011

Acts of Compassion
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Summer 2011 - Department | Headmaster’s Column

Headmaster’s Column

Headmaster

Part of the commencement speech delivered by Headmaster Dr. Val Iwashita on June 4 is published here.

You, the Class of 2011, are about to receive your diplomas. Everyone here knows the importance of this ceremony. Your hard work and sacrifice, along with that of your parents, have prepared you for college and adulthood. Your ‘Iolani education will serve you well. We are proud of you and happy to have you join the ranks of the thousands of alumni who have come before you.

Before you do, let me offer one last bit of advice: Sometimes learning occurs unexpectedly and not as a result of your own initiative. You need to be open to and welcome such epiphanies. I recently had such an experience.

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Sendai, I was in Tokyo, less than two hundred miles away. Given my proximity, even seeing the destruction on television was a harrowing experience. To see that wall of water destroy everything in its path was dreadful. The knowledge that 27,000 people perished brought me intense sadness. I know that many here in Hawai‘i felt as I did, and I salute the efforts of everyone who made an effort to help.
The reaction of the Japanese people was amazing. No one honked a horn or showed anger. People continued to follow the rules and to respect one another. Calm and civility survived the challenging circumstances.


To be honest, watching CNN was scarier than being in Tokyo. Our daily routine there was scarcely interrupted—at least at first. I was on a bus parked in front of a hotel with my colleagues of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation when the earthquake struck. The bus shook violently, but not enough to make us think that it was about to tip over. When the tremors diminished, we stepped outside and saw no signs of damage. Everything seemed normal, and we walked inside the hotel to start our meeting; we were interrupted only once by an aftershock. It wasn’t until our meeting ended, 90 minutes later, that we saw on television the destruction caused by the tsunami and realized the severity of the situation.
 
Trains in Tokyo were shut down to check for damage. The Japanese telephone network was overloaded and worked intermittently. With millions of people at work on a Friday afternoon, the streets of Tokyo became completely clogged. It took our bus 45 minutes to travel two blocks. Thousands of people filled the sidewalks, many standing in line at stores to buy food and supplies. People had to walk home, for some a journey of many hours. Others slept in their offices. Saturday morning was not much different, but the congestion began to ease in the afternoon, only to return Monday morning when people could not get to work because of irregular train service. Even the ripples from a disaster of such magnitude can test the bonds of culture and society.  And that’s where my learning began. 

The reaction of the Japanese people was amazing. No one honked a horn or showed anger. People continued to follow the rules and to respect one another. Calm and civility survived the challenging circumstances. If this had been simply a reflection of a culture’s ability to hide emotion, I would not have been as impressed. It was much more than that. I saw a sense of community, a sincere willingness to help others and a faith that this too would pass. I was forcibly struck by the strength of character shown by the Japanese people and their capacity to place the welfare of community before individual needs.

I wanted to be like them.

I should tell you that until that day, I never identified with the Japanese. I grew up in post war America when memories of Japan as the enemy still lingered. The Japanese nation had not yet become our most trusted ally in Asia. Internment camps and other forms of prejudice were part of my parents’ world, even though they did not personally experience such hardships. They insisted that I grow up American, learning the Queen’s English, attending Sunday school at Kaimuki Christian Church and embracing the values and perspectives of our society. They knew this would allow me to fit in better, and they hoped that I would find success as a result. I am pleased to say I exceeded their expectations, and mine.

I learned valuable lessons on March 11, 2011. Most obviously I gained a better understanding of the Japanese people. I now understand more fully why they avoid open disagreements and overt criticism of others. I began to see the reasons for their being accommodating to a fault. I am impressed by their respect for their heritage and their dedication to their ancestral crafts and traditions. I admire their precision and the priority they place on quality. I envy them their egalitarianism: 80% of the population shares similarly in the nation’s considerable wealth, a much greater proportion than in most industrialized nations. I appreciate their ingenuity and creativity.
I hope it will not take a tsunami for you to learn your own future lessons of life, identity and social responsibility. You know a lot already. You need to be ready to learn more.


I also gained a better understanding of myself. My sense of my own identity, how I viewed myself, changed—dramatically and suddenly. I am still, of course, very much an American. But I have also embraced another culture as my own and am richer for having done so. I stand before you today, proud to be Japanese American.

I hope it will not take a tsunami for you to learn your own future lessons of life, identity and social responsibility. You know a lot already. You need to be ready to learn more. 

Your teachers, family, friends and I send you out into the world confident of your ability to learn from the challenges and the moments of insight that life will give you. And when your epiphany comes, I hope that you will be as fortunate as I was and stand ready to learn something new and to welcome the knowledge.  

Finding your best fit, your niche, your identity, will take a while, and your attempts to do so will change along the way. Mine certainly did. My wish for you, this day and always, is that you learn to live, and live to learn.