Arigato, Mr. Fukumura

By some quirk of fate, our cable provider recently gave us access to the English version of NHK, Japan’s public television network. I was overjoyed when I stumbled upon the channel a couple weeks ago, and I’m hoping it’s not just NHK screenshot 2a short-term teaser to get us to upgrade our cable package. (By the way, right now NHK is doing a series of reports marking the third anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, the one that resulted in the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. That earthquake killed 18,000 people and I was sad to learn that there are 2,600 people still listed as missing.)

You may wonder why I’m so excited about getting news from Japan. There are several reasons, but the primary one is a very personal connection: I lived in Tokyo for five years, from 1985 to 1990. My first husband was a journalist, employed by the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the news organization for the U.S. Military. He was a civilian employee, and we lived right in the center of Tokyo, immersed in Japanese daily life. I was 24 years old and very naive when I arrived there. As a young newlywed left alone all day in a country so different from my own, I suffered intense culture shock as I struggled to adapt. There was no email back then, so my two options for reaching my support network in the States were via snail-mail letter or $2-a-minute phone calls. I was a rowboat with one oar, adrift in a sea of kanji, yen, and tofu.

After settling in for a few months, I finally got a job in a German consulting firm’s marketing department. A year later I found myself searching for another job where I wouldn’t be just the token American that they used to convince clients they were a “truly international” company. I ended up selling Japanese and English language courses to corporations in the Tokyo metro area. And that’s where I met Mr. Fukumura.

Mr. Fukumura with me and a couple friends, on a trip to Aoshima Island on Kyushu (Feb. 1990)
Mr. Fukumura with me and a couple friends, on a trip to Aoshima Island on Kyushu (1990)

He was the office manager in charge of supervising us, the foreign sales staff in the company. (The Japanese staff worked in a separate division for some reason.) Part of Fukumura-san’s job description included helping us find our way around Tokyo, a city notorious for not using street names. The blocks in each ward are numbered, so addresses are a series of numbers like this: 4-1-33 Koyama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 104. (If you’re interested, here’s the Wikipedia explanation of it.) And lest we forget, this was back in the days before the Internet and smartphones with GPS, so we really had to get good directions from the nearest train station before heading out on our sales calls. Luckily I’m pretty good at finding my way around, so I did fine with that.

But Mr. Fukumura went above and beyond his official job description many times. He was such a kind man, tolerant of many things from the foreign staff he managed. Most of us were young and ignorant, but he always treated us with respect. My colleagues were from many countries: India, China, Thailand, the U.K., Australia, France, Algeria, Iran, and Ethiopia, among others. I learned a lot from my interactions with my coworkers of various nationalities, and began to see my own country through new eyes.

But Mr. Fukumura earned a spot deep in my heart when he held my hand as I had to navigate the Japanese court system when my marriage fell apart after little more than two years. I had married too quickly and too young, and moved 6,500 miles away from friends and family, with a husband who worked among other Americans in a gated office complex while I was left to find my way alone in a culture where I couldn’t even read the names of products in the grocery store. (Ask me how frustrating it is to put “sugar” in your tea and find out it’s salt…I had no way to know the difference when I was buying it in the supermarket.)

Fukumura-san with his ever-present smile at an office party not long before I left Japan in 1990.
Fukumura-san with his ever-present smile (2nd from right) at an office party not long before I left Japan in 1990. (I’m 3rd from the left.)

Anyway, Fukumura-san not only went to court with me and translated my divorce documents, he made countless calls trying to find a landlord willing to have a foreigner as a tenant. He went with me to meet the landlord, who wanted to have a look at me to make his final decision as to whether I would be a suitable tenant. Even though I had been in Japan for a couple years at that point, I hadn’t become comfortable enough with the language for certain types of important conversations, so his help was invaluable to me.

Those first few months after my divorce are a blur now, but I remember I was terrified and excited at the same time. Now I would be on my own in Tokyo at age 26. Everything turned out great eventually, and I’m so glad I resisted my initial impulse to run home to my parents and cry about things. The next three years were some of the best of my entire life, filled with parties, travel, and interesting friends. And Mr. Fukumura remained my safety line through it all. He was like a favorite uncle, reassuring and reliable and always looking out for my best interests.

Ice skating with friends in Tokyo, in early 1988.
Ice skating with friends in Tokyo, in early 1988. When you get to know people from other nations (like China and Thailand, represented in this photo), your view of the world is changed forever.

He once told me that Americans had been kind to his daughter who lived in California, and that was part of his motivation to help foreigners in his own country. That convinced me that the world would be a better place if we all had the chance to know people from other countries, because those personal relationships and experiences teach you to think twice before resorting to stereotypes to describe entire nationalities. If I were to make a list of the most important learning experiences a person could have in their life, it would definitely include living in a different culture, even if only for a few months.

When it came time for me to leave Japan after five years, Fukumura-san gave me a photo of Mt. Fuji that he had taken on one of his trips to that revered Japanese mountain. Every time I look at it I smile and think of how one man’s kindness was largely responsible for allowing me to have such wonderful experiences in Japan.

Fukumura-san showing his professional photography techniques
Fukumura-san showing his professional photography techniques

He was about 65 when I left, so he would be around 89 now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still living an active life — he was very fit and loved to be outdoors, whether it was swimming or hiking or just walking. And that’s the way I will always think of him: healthy and smiling.

If you’re out there, Akira Fukumura, I hope you know how important you were to this young American girl so far from home. I hope I was gracious enough to tell you this back then, but just in case I didn’t, I want to say it now: Thank you, my friend.

Forest Bathing: No Soap Needed

Most of us cleanse our bodies on a daily basis, but have you ever given much thought to cleansing your mind and spirit as well? I’m not referring to traditional religious practice, although that may serve a similar purpose for some people. I’m talking about shinrinyoku — forest bathing.

Walking in the Michigan winter woods
A winter walk in the woods

In 1982 this term was coined by the Japanese government to describe the practice of walking in the woods for refreshment and escape from the hustle and bustle of urban environments. They recognized the health benefits of being immersed in nature and encouraged people to spend quiet time among the trees as often as possible to reduce stress levels. Scientists in Japan are conducting a range of ongoing studies measuring the physiological effects of various elements of the natural world, trying to quantify exactly how our bodies respond to nature. But even without knowing their results, I think we all know how good we feel when we get away from our desks and the concrete jungle, even if only for a short walk on our lunch hour.

Scientists here in the U.S. are also trying to establish objectively measurable evidence of the health benefits of nature. For example, a study at the University of Illinois came to some interesting conclusions:

Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.

Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.

The article goes on to explain that green spaces have more than just psychological benefits; they also have proven physical effects like helping you to recover quicker after surgery, improving your immune function, and even improving “functional living skills” among older people. In fact, I just read an article in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine that touts the benefits of “healing gardens” for dementia patients. Apparently these gardens are becoming more common at hospitals, senior centers, and even schools. I’m very encouraged by this, and I’ll have more to say about healing gardens in an upcoming post.

The scientists might need more evidence to satisfy them, but this is more than enough to convince me that I’ve named my blog appropriately: Nature [really] is my Therapy.

Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park
Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park

By the way, if you live in a location with lots of snow and bare trees right now (like I do), don’t despair; you can still get the benefits of “green”space without waiting for things outside to come back to life in a few months. All you need to do is decorate your home and office with pictures of flowers, gardens, rivers, or landscapes; then when you need a break, just gaze upon those peaceful images and feel your blood pressure go down, your breathing slow, your mood lift. If you’re skeptical that this works, try it. You’ll see.

Below are some photos of beautiful things I found because I was out looking for birds — I hope they make you happy too.

Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
A carpet of woodland daffodils
A carpet of woodland daffodils
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it's like in his world....
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it’s like in his world….

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Sources for those of you who want to read more:

Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine: Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793347/?tool=pubmed)

Science Daily: Green Environments Essential for Human Health, Research Shows (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419151438.htm)