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An American Doctor in Fukushima

April 15, 2011

After shopping last weekend, I met one of the Gyouza Sisters on the bus. The Gyouza Sisters are not a religious order. Rather, this is a title I carry in my head for three sisters who were regular Sunday patrons of a venerable Fukushima institution: Gyouza Kaikan.

The modest storefront of Gyouza Kaikan, where every dumpling is hand-made in plain view
This "business card" is just part of a paper slip that accompanies take-out orders from Gyouza Kaikan

Gyouza are Chinese dumplings (a.k.a. jiaozi). Kaikan generally implies a large hall or assembly, but Gyouza Kaikan has counter space for about 12. Behind the counter, a long-married couple makes every dumpling by hand, in plain sight. They also serve ramen noodles and small side dishes. This is the kind of food a Japanese man might want before taking a train, bus, or cab home after drinking with coworkers. Gyouza Kaikan operates from 5 pm to 11 pm. The Gyouza Sisters and I favor the early hours. It's a mixed crowd and, shoulder-to-shoulder, there is plenty of opportunity to mix. One may also choose to eat in solitude, but the Gyouza Sisters were glad in 2008 to welcome a "young" foreigner into their conversation. I am young for having been born after World War II. The Gyouza Sisters have seen a lot.

Another conversation struck up at Gyouza Kaikan in 2008 was with a Mr. Noji, who held a chair on the Fukushima Prefectural Board of Education. This chance encounter was noted by my FMU superiors the following week, at a title-conferring ceremony.

It used to be that two of the three sisters would ride the same bus back to Hourai after their Sunday dinner. Most other times, I would just see the one who was hard of hearing. That, and my relatively clumsy Japanese, never prevented us from making conversation on the bus. Last year, Hard-of-Hearing was commuting to a downtown hospital. Next encounter, I learned that one of her sisters had passed away. Answers to health and welfare inquiries might be metered according to the relationship between speaker and listener, but we had known each other for a while. Japanese conversations are also about balance. No matter the depth of one's own grief, the other person's situation is considered. Hard-of-Hearing, mourning her own sister, wanted to know how my siblings, and my mother, were doing. It brought a genuine smile to her face to learn they were doing well, thank you.

Last weekend's conversation was naturally about the earthquake and everything since. My Gyouza Sister had been displaced from her home for about 10 days, and readily taken in by relatives while repairs were made. "But people on the coast, still in shelters, that's a real problem."

How long we live, and even where we live, are matters of uncertainly. What remains is how we live. In Japan, I am learning this by example.