Why I believe in social justice

“I appreciate your passion for politics and subcultures,” someone recently told me. It wasn’t exactly a compliment based on other things that were said, but I was troubled for a different reason.

I had spoken out over an #Alllivesmatter “news article” published by the ConservativeTribune, explaining that it was rather inflammatory considering several unarmed black men had recently been killed by police, and that this website strays pretty close to the Alt Right movement. And while the response to my comment was tolerant, at least, it bothered me.

Because I don’t speak out about #Blacklivesmatter because it’s a hot topic or a political issue. I don’t think the “liberal media” is driving me into a frenzy, or that I have to be knowledgeable about stuff because I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in international affairs.

Okay, yeah, obviously, I like politics. I like debating and sharing and discussing ideas. But that’s not why I speak out, nor why I believe in social justice.

The Christian Right, for better or worse, has been tied to the Republican party for the last 40ish years, and are a pretty vocal bunch. Unfortunately, because some of these social justice ideas (prison reform, welfare aid, education reform, etc) are championed more by the Democrats than Republicans, many Christians immediately view it as suspect.

I once read an article basically saying Christians had no business even using the phrase “social justice,” let alone getting involved, because the word “social” came from Marxist “socialism” and is therefore heretical to anything Christian. (This is where I could go on a very, very long rant about how American Christians hold onto their Republican/American identity more than they care about their Christian identity, but I’ll try to end that here).

I didn’t speak up about that news article because it disagreed with my political beliefs. It did, but that’s not why. I spoke up because I believe that every human is made in the image of God and deserve dignity and respect. I spoke up because my faith demands that I point out injustice (By the way, the Hebrew word for justice doesn’t actually mean what most Americans think it means. Christian political scientists differentiate between two types of justice: restorative/primary justice, and punitive justice. We’ve forgotten than the Bible refers to both, not just punitive).

Contrary to some family members’ opinions, I don’t oppose Trump because I’m a flaming liberal (actually, I’m still registered as a Republican, but I feel no compulsion to vote for someone just because they have a red R by their name). I don’t consider myself liberal, nor a Democrat. I’m independent and a centrist. And I got that way because I read Deuteronomy, Numbers, Psalms, Jeremiah, the minor prophets, the gospels, Ephesians, and James. I became that way by reading about Christian martyrs and leaders through the years.

Don’t knock on social justice, guys. Christians have long been involved in movements that expanded personal freedoms and justice to oppressed people, and  they did it not because it was a convenient political tool, but because they believed that to be true to their faith, they needed to act.

As a Christian, it is a lifelong journey to view and review my political and social beliefs in light of what the Bible actually says. If I’m not careful, I can cherry pick any verse to support whatever cause I want. I can focus on the few times the Bible talks about marriage and divorce (important topics, yes) and build my entire one-issue voter profile and support, or I can view those verses alongside the hundreds of times God called the Jews and Christians to care for the stranger, the widows, the orphans, the vulnerable in our midst. And I can adjust my political beliefs accordingly (Okay, so maybe I have more in common with the Evangelical Left than I thought–and yes, they do exist).

This isn’t about political issues. This is about human beings.

This isn’t to draw a line a divide evangelicalism from social justice. I think we can work together, learn from each other, and even learn from each other’s different interpretations of Scripture. An example:

All my life, I grew up listening to the Widow’s Mite story in the gospels, learning that it was important to sacrifice everything for Christ, even my financial comfort. The widow was praised for her trust and sacrifice, and it was pretty clear that one day, I should hope to do the same. This is good, true, theology. (The Christian Right does a decent job focusing on the theology of a person’s relationship with Christ)

Then, when I was 22, I moved and started looking for a new church. Our first Sunday at an Anglican church had the Sunday Bible study meeting about the Widow’s Mite. “Okay, I grew up with this, I know the drill,” I thought. But instead I was taken through commentaries, translation of Greek words, and the religious/social customs of 1st century Jerusalem. And then I learn that Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees, the elite religious leaders, for creating a system of oppression, for forcing the woman to tithe her last mite rather than taking care of her in her old age. This was a scathing review of how the religious group focused on their own needs rather than ministering to their community, like synagogues are supposed to. (The Christian Left does a pretty decent job of focusing on the theology of a person’s relationship with the rest of the world).

So, which one’s right? Which one has more truth to it? If you were reading the last two paragraphs trying to pick apart one argument, you missed the point. Both are true and important to learn.

So why do I believe in social justice?

Simply put, because Jesus tells me to.

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“Korea crazy”

So we English teachers in the land of the morning calm have this catch-all phrase that we use whenever describing something we see as illogical, ridiculous, disturbing, or just plain weird. We call it “Korea crazy.”


Person 1: My boss is crazy.

Person 2: You mean Korea crazy or crazy?

So let me break down for you what we mean by this. “Korea crazy,” like I said, is a bit of a catch-all phrase, a subgenre of the normal word “Crazy.” In my time in Korea, from experiencing Korean culture, Korean workplaces, and other English teachers, this is what I’ve come across. Interestingly, being called “crazy” in Korea is a much bigger insult than it is in the West. While it’s certainly rude in the West, in Korea it includes the connotations of “useless” and “worthless,” so while English teachers use “Korea crazy” as shorthand to explain otherwise strange behavior, we wouldn’t say any of that to a Korean’s face.

Crazy means:

  • Anything that offends our Western sensibilities, is flagrantly opposite Western values, or just doesn’t make sense
  • Parts of Korean culture that really don’t make any sense or are flaws in an otherwise fascinating, rich, ancient, and amazing culture
  • Illogical, irrational human behavior, often accompanied with mental illness, personality disorders, and actions that should require medication.

“Korea crazy” covers the top two bullet points.

The first bullet point, of things that don’t make sense to Westerners include

  • A monument to how humiliating and degrading South Koreans treated Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean war, with loud, patriotic music in the background
  • A play based on folklore at a festival that has magical farts as a major plot point
  • A lantern festival with an entire row of lanterns portraying Japanese soldiers being tortured
  • Koreans lining up for a bus before there’s ever a need to, but refusing to follow a line in any other situation
  • Tiptoeing around a problem rather than addressing it
  • A highly paternalistic work culture and expectation of the government to educate and care for the people
  • Strong desire to “fit in” and not stand out in any shape or form
  • Absolute insistence that Dokdo matters to the world and is Korean land.

Some of it is just weird by Western standards, and I don’t know the reasons behind it. Some of this is just like humor, I think–some people love puns, others hate them. Some people love quirky behavior found in East Asian countries, other prefer quirky behavior found in North American countries.

And the rest of this boils down to culture differences, right? And much of the things that rub Westerners the wrong way have their roots in Confucianism. It is an ancient, highly paternalistic, respect-driven culture. From that stems the rigid hierarchy of elders telling young people what to do (even strangers), expectations that the government will handle most problems, the saving face and pretending problems don’t exist (if Korea ever has a natural disaster, saving face will not serve them well), and the belief that bosses can rule your life and deserve lots of respect.

And while I respect Korean culture and realize that in many ways Confucianism has served them well, I think there are significant flaws. Which leads me on to the second bullet point.

Every culture has weaknesses and flaws. Although I love my own American Western culture, I am intimately aware of all the problems that come with an individualistic, polarized, and materialistic culture. There are significant problems with the way we do things in the States, just as there are significant problems in every country and in every culture. I’m not trying to bash Korea, Korean people, or suggest that their culture is in any way inferior to the rest of the world. It has great strengths, but this blog post is about its weaknesses as perceived by Westerners. Most of these points are also strengths of Korean culture, just played out a little too far so that they now hinder, rather than support, the culture.

  • Lying to save face, especially in serious situations like crime, natural disasters, and office mistakes. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and Koreans usually aren’t willing to do that. This is also probably one of the main reasons alcoholism is rampant–no one will admit it’s a thing.
  • Expecting employees to come to work when sick. Colds and viruses spread like wildfire out here because people aren’t allowed to quarantine themselves when sick.
  • The hierarchy stifling otherwise a vibrant, creative, productive generation of young people into following their grandparents’ desires. While I love the fact that the elderly are respected in East Asia, rather than ignored like in the West sometimes, I think this goes too far. It also hurts my American individualistic beliefs, too.
  • Materialism. I was quite shocked to come to Korea and find many people far more materialistic and focused on flashy, expensive cars and clothes than people I’d met in the States. This is a flaw that Korean culture shares with American culture, I think, though Korea’s materialism stems from the confucian belief that the outside reflects the inner (a beautiful woman is a kind woman, a flashy car doesn’t just mean a man’s rich, but that he’s a good person). The rates of plastic surgery in Korea are some of the highest in the world.
  • Societal pressure to perform really hurts everyone. This is something that happens everywhere in every culture, I think, but because this is a blog post written by an American about Korean culture, I’ll keep my comments germane to the topic. This issue also affects the United States, but I think the pressure to live up to your family’s name, to be successful in all that you do, is even stronger here. Alcoholism is a real thing here, though they pretend it’s not. Korean kids are stressed, sleep-deprived, and always worried about their schoolwork, and Korea’s depression rates are some of the highest in the world (Japan’s rates are also high). The speed of industrialization in the 20th century also may have something to do with pressure and expectations.
  • Strong nationalism and suspicion of “the other” will really hamper South Korea’s growth on the international scale unless something changes. Korea has a difficult history, and it’s sandwiched between China and Japan–two regional powerhouses. The fact that Korea has kept hold of its identity and homeland over the past two thousand years, defeating both Chinese and Japanese invasions multiple times, is astounding. It’s worth celebrating. They’ve kept their language, made their own alphabet, and have progressed rapidly in just 60 years. But this is not without cost. Many (not all) Koreans are very racist. Not just curious about other types of people (which I fully support and think is healthy) but actively racist. I’m just lucky we somehow convinced Koreans that white people are cool. Korea is the most ethnically homogeneous country in the world. 20% of Koreans have the last name Kim. Four last names make up about 50% of the population. Every human, every culture, has a suspicion of the other (which isn’t of itself is bad), but the Korean government has encouraged its people to make value judgements based on people’s skin color, last names, and other characteristics.

And finally, the last bullet point, actual craziness. Sh*t you don’t want to be around. (I have so much personal experience with this I’ll have to document it later, when I’m out of Korea). I think one reason English teachers come across so much “Korea crazy” is because many of us work in hagwons and even a few iffy public schools.

Hagwons, or private, for-profit schools, are in it for the money. That’s the name of the game. So while Korea is full of wonderful, amazing people we’d be lucky to know, hagwons are full of administrators that care about money, not people. And when they have a steady influx of foreigners who don’t know the language, culture, work expectations, or anything else, really, it’s very easy to abuse the system. I think English teachers come across power-hungry men at a much higher rate than regular Koreans living in their own country do. And these power-hungry men know they can get away with so much more because we’re, well, clueless. This can seem like “Korea crazy” because it’s most of what we see, but it actually takes up a much smaller segment of the culture/population than we think.

As for the actual mental disorder stuff? Well, mental illness “doesn’t exist” in Korea, so that’s just your imagination. Get with the program, folks.

A video on Why Not to Teach English in Korea Hilarious with a lot of truth in it. A critique of the ESL industry.

Final words: Korea is an amazing culture, but everything has its flaws. This is just an American’s explanation of a common ESL teacher view of the country, with a little explanation of how the culture got that way. If you’re interested/concerned with something I’ve said, comment and share your thoughts. And do some research on your own to learn about Korean culture and the subculture of ESL in Korea.

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting the DMZ

Korea’s Thanksgiving, called Chuseok ( 추석 in Hangul) is a great opportunity for a wonderful, relaxing, five-day weekend. Jordan and I took advantage of that by traveling to Seoul (unfortunately our last time) and visiting the Demilitarized Zone.

We showed up, bright and early, for Koridoor’s DMZ tour at USO Camp Kim. Because this is run through the U.S. military, we were told it’s the best one out there, and it gives people a chance to go to the JSA (Joint Security Area).

We hadn’t been around so many Americans in probably a year–it was a little disorienting, actually. We left Seoul in a big tour bus surrounded by American, European, and Singaporean tourists and drove about 50 minutes into the northern countryside.

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, isn’t just a line in the dirt. It’s a strip of earth, a ribbon running from one end of the peninsula to the other, about 160 miles long and 2.5 wide. Because few humans have walked withing the DMZ, much of it is teeming with wildlife and actually quite pretty, despite the barbed wire and landmines still present. There are a few roads, however, that go to the actual border within the DMZ, the real line between the two countries. That’s called the Demarcation Line.

Along the way, we passed Daeseongdong, a small farming community also known as Freedom Village. It’s one of two villages within the DMZ, the other, Kijong-dong, is called “Propaganda Village” by American soldiers. Built by the North Korean regime, it has one of the largest flags and flag towers in the world, but based on surveillance through binoculars, no one’s really convinced that anyone actually lives there, and it’s all just empty buildings. Sometimes South Korea blares KPop music over the propaganda loudspeakers.

Although farmers in Freedom Village lead a somewhat dangerous life so near North Korea, have lots of rules to follow, and have a fractured history of the 1950s, they’re actually quite well off–they don’t pay rent, tax, or do military service.

We stopped at Camp Bonifas, which is jointly run by Americans and Korean soldiers. An American usually stays for about one year, Koreans about two. Korea has compulsory two-year military service for all males. They usually do it in between high school and college. The camp is named for an American captain who was killed in the Axe Murder event by North Korean soldiers. There, we disembarked, filed into a tourist building, watched a very fast slideshow of the history, and were put on different, UN buses. Camp Bonifas is the last stop until the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which is along the real border between the two countries. It’s where the UN hangs out when they have conferences.

_mg_0965At this point, to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated. Our military tour guide for the JSA was a young American soldier who seemed like he’d drawn the short straw and had to babysit a bunch of tourists. He wasn’t enthusiastic, and I had a hard time hearing him. I think I also may have had higher expectations. I expected, because this was a hostile border area, more history and a serious look at the political and social forces at play. But the soldiers really weren’t interested in telling us much of that.

We walked quickly and quietly through a courtyard area, into the the Peace Pagoda which was built to house separated families when they hosted reunions. There have only been a handful of reunions, primarily because North Korea’s government is wary of contact with the outside world. The Peace Pagoda has never been used to house families.

We walked, double file, out onto a back deck of the Pagoda.

“Do not move quickly. Do not wave at the North Korean soldiers. Do not walk over the lines. Do you see that water tower? Do not take pictures of it. Only take photos of North Korean buildings. Do not touch the South Korean soldiers. Do no make sudden movements. Do not stand on that part of the deck.” And on the list went. I couldn’t hear the soldiers very well, and was pretty nervous about making a mistakes.


We took photos for a few moments, and then another American soldier said, “that’s enough. Put your cameras down.” We obeyed, and led down the steps to one of the blue buildings.

Built for treaty meetings and UN conferences, the building straddles to demarcation line. One half of the building is in South Korea, the other in the North. It’s the only place tourists get the chance to step into North Korea.

White stones now mark the demarcation line, but back in the 60s and 70s soldiers of both sides could freely move around, and guard towers were built on both sides of the demarcation line. However, one American/ROK tower was surrounded by three North Korean towers, and the line of sight to the headquarters was blocked by a tree. After a lengthy discussion and agreement, American soldiers went to prune the tree, to allow for better eyesight to their lone guard tower in 1976. However, several North Korean soldiers grew anxious, and things disintegrated. Two American soldiers, Bonifas and Barrett, were killed in the attack. You can learn more about the Axe Murder Incident here.


Once we finished taking our photos, we were instructed to calmly leave, walk back through the Peace Pagoda, and get on the bus. The bus drove us back to Camp Bonifas, where we toured a small museum (finally, I got to learn some of the history), and purchase North Korean trinkets. I admit, I bought some North Korean money. I thought it was fascinating.

Our Koridoor tour guide and bus driver took us to Dora Observatory, which is exactly what it sounds like–an observatory tower with binoculars to peer into North Korea. We got to see Gaesong Industrial Complex, a rare example of North and South working together. Unfortunately, it’s being shut down. While South Korea will suffer the loss of cheap gadgets made there and shipped into the country, North Korea will lose up to 20% of it’s GDP.


Another stop was the Dorasan train station. The northernmost train stop in Korea, it’s tracks run to the Gaesong industrial complex, though freight trains on ran between them in 2007 and 2008. However, rails are in place to link Seoul to Pyeongyang, on to Beijing.


“Just think!” we were told. “After reunification, you could travel from Seoul to Paris by train!” It is a pretty crazy thought.


Because the train station is only used a couple times a day, coming from Seoul, it’s mostly set up as a museum to “what could be.”

Our final stop (after traditional Korean lunch) was the third infiltration tunnel. Long story short, there was a North Korean defector who told the South Korean government the military was digging it’s way to Seoul to invade, in at least 20 tunnels. The South Korean military, ever vigilant, began drilling holes and filling them with water to detect for tunnels. And they found four, from 1974-1990. The North Koreans denied that they’d dug the tunnels, claiming they were old coal mines.

Now, South Korea has opened the tunnels up as tourist destinations, which now that I think about it, is pretty weird. But I think it’s a calculated attempt to publicize to the world how crazy their neighbors are, as well as a show of strength, like, “your attempts at infiltration is so pathetic we entertain ourselves with the efforts.”

That tunnel, though, is pretty deep, and pretty narrow. Supposedly, it could get 30,000 soldiers through in an hour, but I just don’t see how. I was bent over half the time, trying to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling, and returning, I huffed and puffed up the 11% grade incline. Anyway, that was our last visit of the day.

I found it really enlightening (after a bit of wikipedia searches), and would recommend it to people–as long as they do a little research beforehand so they’re not frustrated and confused like I was. I did learn a lot, and have a much better understanding of North Korean relations now. I had really wanted to visit Pyeongyang on a 4- or 5-day tour through Pioneer Tours, but we’re running out of time and money. So the DMZ tour was kind of our one shot at getting to see North Korea. And it’s highly educational and worth going to understand the South Korean perspective as well.



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Grocery shopping in Changnyeong

Grocery shopping isn’t something most people find entertaining or even very interesting. But when you’re thrown into a foreign country with foreign foods, prices, and language, suddenly it becomes a lot more time-consuming and interesting!


Although we live in a village called Gyeseong, we don’t have a grocery store. There’s a 7-11 and a GS25, both small convenience stores, but that’s about it. So on Monday nights our boss, Richard, drives us into Changnyeong so we can do proper grocery shopping.

Changyeong has it’s own mini supermarkets and convenience stores, but the three main stores in town are Jin-Mart, I-Mart, and Topmart. We hardly ever go to Jin-Mart (I don’t know why Richard won’t drive us there).

I-Mart offers great deals on bread, while Topmart has good prices on frozen chicken breasts, so we normally rotate between the two every other week.


The biggest surprise I had when shopping was the price of the food–everything was so much more expensive than I was used to! I think it’s because Korea is a peninsula and very mountainous–most of it’s farmland is used for rice, garlic, onion, and cabbage. Many other foods, especially fresh fruit, must be imported.

I’ve gotta say, though, my eyes bulged when I saw that a small carton of strawberries would cost me 8 USD.

It’s been almost 10 months, though, so I’ve adjusted to the price. I buy a few vegetables every week and one type of fruit, usually one on sale. A lot of the produce is seasonal, so we get strawberries in the spring, nectarines in November/December, and grapefruit in August. Apples, lemons, and oranges are pretty regular, thankfully.

Beef is very expensive in Korea, so we normally buy chicken and pork. Most grocery stores have aquariums of live fish, eel, and octopus ready for sale, but I have no idea how to prepare those dishes, so we just cruise right past that aisle.


Soy, teriyaki, and sukiyaki sauce all comes in large containers, and we regularly buy it along with pounds and pounds of rice. Ramen is practically considered a food group in East Asia, and many stores have an entire aisle dedicated to the flavors, spices, and types of Ramen they sell.

We don’t know what half of the store’s goods are, nor do we know how to cook with it. So our diet is pretty limited to the stuff we can recognize. Thankfully, gmarket is basically Korea’s version of Amazon, and it delivers real cheddar cheese (as well as other non-perishable goods). iHerb, also, is a California company that ship organic and all-natural non-perishables overseas, so we make an order from them once a month.

Also once a month we visit Daegu’s eMart, a much larger department store that carries all the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seasonings we could want. They have a great foreign foods section, which doesn’t have much American, but it does have a little Mexican, Thai, and Italian. Between eMart, gmarket, and iHerb, we’re able to fill in most of the gaps that our small town grocery store doesn’t provide for.

At checkout we buy our monthly allotment of garbage bags (pink bags by local law) and pack our groceries in our shopping bag we bring or a cardboard box the store allows us to take.


Shopping in Korea was definitely an adjustment process–even greater than the adjustment I made when in South America. But after 10 months we’ve made our peace with the missing things in our diet (don’t get me started on how much I miss American Chinese food, Chik Fil A, or Sonic though) and had filled the gaps as best we can. It’s a good chance to assimilate into the local culture, and while we haven’t done it perfectly, we’ve certainly tried!

Categories: CEV, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sacred deer of Nara

About 45 minutes from Osaka is a town called Nara, famous for their temples and deer.

It was Japan’s first permanent capital (710 to 794 AD), and houses beautiful temples and some of the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

We didn’t get to see the wooden buildings, but we did hang out with the deer!


In the 8th century, when the people of Nara were interested in building a temple, myth says that the god Takemikazuchi arrived, riding a white deer. Since then, deer have been protected in the city of Nara. Sometimes they stroll through the center of town, though usually they just stick to Nara Park.



Above is a bell tower from one of the UNESCO temples in Nara Park. The park is really lovely, and a mile or two away, on the far side of a lookout mound, is the Kasagayama Primeval Forest. I really wanted to visit that, but it was too far to walk in the heat.


This wooden statue is in the gateway of Todai-ji Temple. I’m not sure which shinto god he’s supposed to be, but he looks fearsome! I was very impressed with how much has been preserved and taken care of. This park housed some of the oldest things we saw in Japan. Between fires, earthquakes, and WWII, few ancient things have survived into the 21st century.


This is the gate into the temple which houses the wooden carvings. It was so much fun to mill about with the deer. They’re pesky little things, too! We watched and laughed as deer nosed into women’s purses and men’s camera bags, ready to but their way to some food. They’re called Japanese Deer or Spotted Deer, and their antlers are cut every October so they don’t overgrow and accidentally stab tourists.

Beyond this gate is Todai-ji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world. It hosues a 15-meter tall Buddha.


History is a big draw  to Nara and it’s park. Above you can see a rebuilt fishing vessel that Nara people used in the 16th century.

We were staying in Osaka, which is an easy distance from Nara. This daytrip was kind of a last minute addition, based on a friend’s recommendation that the deer are cool. We’re pretty glad we went! Scratching deer and admiring old Japanese trees and temples was a lot of fun.

And that (besides a visit to Osaka Castle) pretty much finished our trip in Japan. We were so sad to leave–Japan is a fascinating country that deserves at least a month to travel and enjoy the sights.

If you’ve visited Japan, what was your favorite part of your trip?

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So we went to Hiroshima.

Yeah, the place where the A-bomb struck. That’s pretty much the only reason anyone knows about this city. Which is really sad, when you think about it.

We took a bullet train south, from Odawara to Osaka to Hiroshima (it wasn’t be choice, it was very expensive and we weren’t pleased) and marveled at the smooth ride and flashing scenery.

The next morning we went out to see the sights. The two biggest things to see in Hiroshima are Hiroshima Castle and the Peace Park and Memorial. We easily did both of those in one day.

As we walked through the city, I was slightly nervous at the reception we might get as Americans. A year ago we talked to an Australian couple who stayed in Nagasaki and said they once had to pull out their passports to prove they weren’t American before the restaurant would serve them lunch. To be honest, I can’t really blame the restaurant.

So far, our trip through Japan had been wonderful (transportation issues aside), and we’d met some of the kindest, friendliest people. I talked with a Japanese girl who’d just returned form a three-month stint of travel in the States and mentioned how much it meant to her when Obama visited Hiroshima. “It made my heart move,” she said. Japan and the US have great foreign relations, and that extends to the everyday people, not just the government. Frankly, it’s amazing how much brutal history we’ve both been able to set aside in the past 70 years.

But in Hiroshima, no one batted an eye when learning we were American. I think Obama’s visit in May smoothed our way through the city, which I was grateful for. Still, as we walked, I wondered what it was like to live in a city known for tragedy. It’s only been 71 years. As beautiful as this thriving city is (and it really is a great city), 71 years is no time at all when you consider collective history and shared narratives of people groups. For example: one of their bus stops is called “the A-bomb dome.” What a burden that must be.


The peace park, museum, and memorial are set up just a few hundred meters from the hypocenter of where the bomb struck. At one end is the museum (200 yen per person), at the other, the one building that survived the nuclear weapon. In between is the ever-burning flame of peace, which will burn until nuclear weapons have been banned, the children’s memorial with a statue of Sadako and her cranes, a Korean memorial, and more.

The A-bomb was dropped at 8:15 on August 6, 1945. It instantly killed 80,000 people. Over 6,000 of those where middle school children in the city center working to create firebreaks. About 20,000 were Korean slave laborers the Japanese had brought over to work in factories for the war effort. Twelve were American prisoners of war. It is very difficult to gauge the death toll, but the museum estimated about 350,000 people died from the bombs and radiation afterward.


The bomb was detonated a little more than 600 meters above ground for maximum damage. While the city was used to air raids and bombers coming through, they stood still when the atom bomb was dropped. Three airplanes went past, dropping the bomb and two parachutes. Curious, people watched instead of fleeing for shelter.

The heat of the bomb was around 1 million degrees centigrade at its center. The heat of the explosion twisted steel, melted concrete, incinerated flesh and bones, and left only shadows of people behind. The few that survived were mostly 1km away from the hypocenter. They stumbled through the streets, some diving into the river, with their skin melting off their body. A few made it home, only to find their homes destroyed by fire and wind, even up to 4 kms away from the hypocenter. Others died, trapped in burning buildings.


Children ringing the peace bell together.

Those that survived the initial blast died 1-20 days later from radiation. No one knew what was happening. No one understood radiation, and many hospitals were destroyed in the blast. Few images exist of the first day after the bomb. One photographer went into the city to document, but was shocked by the thousands of corpses amidst the rubble, and could only take five photos before leaving. He later died of radiation poisoning.


This dome building, the peace memorial, was the closest surviving building to the epicenter. It was left just as the bomb ravaged it, with twisted steel rebar running through the interior.Known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, it was only 160 meters from the hypocenter. Everyone inside died instantly.

Hiroshima was a military city–it had been for many years before WWII, and the 5th division of the army was stationed there. That, coupled with the fact that there was nothing left of Tokyo to destroy, was why the American military chose Hiroshima as its target.

We wandered through the museum, looking a couple of gruesome mannequins and the few remains of a few of the people who died. A charred lunchbox sat on one end, the only thing that a mother found after combing through her the rubble of her son’s school  for three days. There wasn’t enough of a body left to bury, let alone identify. A burnt and twisted tricycle was displayed in another corner, evidence of a four-year-old’s death. Artwork adorned the walls, showing women covered in black rain, digging through their burning homes to pull their children to safety. There is so much more I could tell you.

It was horrific. I had an audio guide which gave the testimonies of these things, and I had to skip through it. After two narratives I almost broke down in the middle of the exhibit, and I didn’t think that would be respectful of the Japanese’ story. “White tears” wasn’t something I wanted to cry when faced with the overwhelming, incomprehensible violence and loss of this city.

After the bombing, people believed nothing could grow there again for 75 years. It’s only been 71, to put that into perspective.

At the end of the exhibit was a display of photos of world leaders who had visited the museum and center. Front and center was Pres. Obama’s visit in May. It was obvious how special and healing the visit was for the Japanese people.


At the end were discussion books, places for people to express their thoughts and feelings. I thought this was very touching, since going through an intense experience of the museum really does churn a lot of emotions and concerns up. You can see what I wrote in the bottom right of the page.


Elsewhere in the park, a memorial was erected to remember the lives of Koreans who died far from their home in the atomic blast.


Once out in the park, we were approached by several groups of middle schoolers who were there on assignment.

“We have studied English for five years and have questions for you. Can we ask you questions?” Five inquired, blushing and giggling behind their notebooks.

“Of course,” Jordan and I responded.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States,” we said, a little uncomfortable with that fact.

“Oh, wow!” They grinned at one another, excited. “So why are you here?”

“To learn. It is important we learn about bad things in the past so we don’t repeat them. Especially the Japanese and the Americans,” I said.

“What do you think of a bombs?”

“They are bad,” Jordan answered.

“And of Hiroshima?”

“Very, very, very sad.” I said, trying to keep words simple for them. “So many people. So sad.”

“Thank you for your time,” the oldest said. “Here are two cranes. You know about the cranes?”

We nodded and accepted beautiful origami cranes from them.

After they left, we wandered around the park some more. Although the mood was a little somber, most people seemed stoic. We passed one or two people were were crying on the steps (I felt like joining them).

I’ve been to difficult places before–not Auswitz, but the Killing Fields in Cambodia and a museum on human rights in Chile. I’ve been to Pearl Harbor. Those were difficult. But this was different. It was much harder to walk through the park knowing my country caused these deaths. And yes, it was war, and by definition war is terrible and brutal and deadly, but these were innocents.

The visit was difficult and uncomfortable at times and absolutely heartbreaking, but I strongly suggest everyone visit Hiroshima if they get the chance. Especially Americans.

To end on a lighter note, here’s a photo of Hiroshima castle. It was originally built in the late 16th century, destroyed by the bombing, and rebuilt.


A tree in the courtyard, less than 1 km away from the hypocenter, survived the bomb. That tree gave the Japanese hope that one day, they could rebuild, that Hiroshima would be a city of peace once again. And they did.

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Little mountain town Hakone

After leaving Tokyo and the typhoon behind, we traveled a little way south to a mountain town in the Hakone district.

Because the tyhpoon disrupted train and bus schedules, it was very difficult to get to Hakone-Yumoto (the town we stayed in). I’ll just bypass that stressful evening of buses, trains, walking, etc., and get to the good part.

Hakone-Yumoto is a quaint tourist village with gorgeous nature surrounding it. Mt. Fuji can be seen in the distance, beyond a few lakes, and is very popular with Japanese travelers. Hot springs abound in Hakone-Yumoto, so many hotels have onsens, or public baths. I had been to a jjimjilbang before, so I wanted to check out Japanese baths and see how it compared.

But first: Lake Ashi and Mt. Fuji!


We took a winding path up and over a mountain on a public bus to get from our airbnb to the lakeside village of Hakone-Mori. It was very cloudy that day, so we strolled along the shoreline just hoping Mt. Fuji would burst through the clouds. Many tourists drive to Hakone-Mori, take a boat across the lake, ride a cablecar up a mountain, and return to Yumoto village after about four or five hours. We didn’t want to spend that much money, so Jordan just went on a quick sightseeing boat ride._MG_0586

Although we didn’t go at a great time–the typhoon made everything difficult, from transportation to photos, the area is really beautiful. I’d happily go back and spend a long weekend there._MG_0568

Japan has beautiful cedar trees! I had no idea how much I loved cedar trees until we saw groves of them here. Although the Japanese are known for being tech-savvy and city-dwellers, they love their nature and have many parks, trails, and lakes dedicated to resting in the great outdoors._MG_0534

And there she is! Mt. Fuji herself! A beloved landmark, Fuji represents the pride, beauty, and determination of Japanese culture. We were so pleased that the clodus cleared long enough for a photo.

I know I haven’t included a lot of transportation information of coming and going, but if anyone planning a trip has questions, let me know. We made a few mistakes along the way (as helpful and friendly as Tokyo folks are, they don’t know how to leave their city very well and offer odd advice). After a time sightseeing, we hopped on the bullet train and went far, far south to Hiroshima.

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Seeing friends

We had the awesome opportunity while in Tokyo to see some family friends!

Ralph and Miho, missionaries with OMF in Tokyo, have stayed with my family when on home leave in the past. This time we got to see their hometown!

But before we did that, we rushed through the largest fish market in the world–Tsukiji Market. Normally at 9 am the place is massive, bustling, and full of fresh catches from the night before. But a typhoon had hit the coast, so few fishermen went out early that morning, and the market was much smaller than normal. It was also raining, so we kind of rushed from awning to awning rather than taking our time and sniffing tuna.


Still, if you get the chance, definitely go!

We had originally planned a lovely trip along the coast with Ralph and Miho, but the rain made sure that didn’t happen. Instead, they took us to the church they volunteer at and showed us. I had seen photos before, when they were in the States and telling us about their mission, but it was a lot of fun seeing it in person.


They took us to a local sushi joint, and Ralph kindly told me what to order and how to eat it.


That’s my face before I tried the squid, I believe.

Visiting with friends was a wonderful experience, and it was so nice to be around people that spoke Japanese and could navigate the suburbs of Tokyo like a native (because they are natives!).

Jordan and I were a little sad to leave them so early, but we had to catch a bus to Hakone before the weather got worse.


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Historic Tokyo

On a lark, we decided to visit the Tokyo Edo Museum. We were glad we did!


It cost 620 yen a person to get in, but the museum was huge and had tons of information about Tokyo during the Edo period, which ran from the 16th century to 1868. In the words of the museum, “In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu entered the Kanto area and made Edo his power base. In 1603, he was rising to the rank of seii tai shogun (literally meaning “barbarian-subduing generalissimo,” commonly known as shogun) and established his shogunate in Edo. Ieyasu worked to develop Edo into a capital suitable as the home of the shogunate.”

The shogun and emperor are two separate people. If you want a crash course on the history of Japan (which explains who the offices are for and how they got mixed up), click here.

Anyway. Edo was a little fishing village in 1457 and became a booming metropolis of over 1 million people by 1721. In comparison, London was about 650,000 people at this time. New York City had about 8,000 people. Once the shogun made it his home, commerce took off. Buddhist temples and brothels and theaters were built side by side, samurai built their city manors near the shogun’s residence, and common people lived in tiny, barracks-like homes strung together.


In the 1850s the United States pretty much forced Japan to end their isolationist policy (which was good for trade but bad for public health–many died of cholera and smallpox). Nationalism was stirring at this point (think The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise), and amidst the nationalist vs. American/modernist views, there was also political upheaval between the emperor and the shogunate/military factions. In 1868 the Meiji Restoration. The emperor abolished the office of Shogun and the Tokugawa family that hadh eld the office for around 300 years. The emperor welcomed westernization with open arms. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult time in Japan. This was when he moved the capital to Edo and renamed the city to “Tokyo.”

The museum depicted this in practically living technicolor, with moving models and beautiful panoramas. We were particularly impressed with how much information the graphs and charts gave. I’ve never seen such detailed info at a museum. It gave specific demographic statistics about many men, women, and children lived in a neighborhood at a certain decade and how many craftsmen were employed along specific streets. I was amazed.

After Edo Museum we strolled to Ueno Park, which is a must-see. Multiple museums, libraries, and gardens converge on this part of the city. We wandered through trees and walked by fountains, admiring signs that proudly displayed “TOKYO 2020!!” At the National Museum (which is primarily artwork–don’t go unless you love art) we snapped a few photos of old teahouses.


Nearby are also old, famous shrines.


We ended the day by walking through Yanaka Cemetery. Many famous people are buried here, from poets and novelists to the last shogun. Over 7,000 people are laid to rest here, and from the gravestone we could see some were Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian.


It’s a great way to get a feel for old Japan, something more traditional and cherished in their culture. It’s also a lovely, quiet place for a walk.

We had walked about nine miles at that point, so we were tired and went back to our hostel to collapse in bed. Good thing, too, because it began to rain. We weathered the beginning of our very first typhoon that night!


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Imperial Tokyo

Tokyo has many gardens, botanical exhibits, and parks. I had no idea there were so many green places in the city!

The most famous, of course, are the Imperial gardens by the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo. (Note: While you can visit the Imperial Palace, reservations must be made at least four days in advance. And they have a weird schedule. We weren’t able to go because they don’t give tours in afternoons in August).

_MG_0438Although the emperor still lives in the palace, the gardens are free and open to the public. While they are loveliest in spring during the cherry blossom season, it was nice to see wide, green spaces and trees surrounding medieval moats.

Built on the old Edo castle, the gardens were once considered some of the most expensive real estate in the world (circa 1980s).


Between the East Gardens, peeking through the trees to get a view of the palace, strolling through the National Archives, and exploring the Science Museum, this part of Tokyo took up most of our day. I also got a sunburn._MG_0462

A famous watchtower–all we could see of the Imperial Palace.

The gardens host various types of fruit trees, irises, and cherry trees. It’s a great place to enjoy good weather and take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

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