The date is March 11, 2011. The location is the coastal town of Rikuzentakata on the northeast coast of Japan, in front of city hall. Earlier this day, a magnitude-9 earthquake off the coast had convulsed the ocean floor. Now, local residents await the tsunami warning.
A shaky phone video stares at the white stripes of a city parking lot, then pans up to a small crowd, milling, and waiting. A loudspeaker proclaims in Japanese, “Tsunami has gone over the sea gate. Please evacuate immediately.”
Sirens blare. The loudspeaker comes again, more urgently: “Now, great tsunami warning is declared. Tsunami has gone over the embankment! Residents please evacuate immediately.”
Still, people are standing or moving slowly. There is no panic. A young American in a yellow coat, gray hat and glasses, with a green messenger bag slung over his shoulder, walks away from the anonymous camera, then back again, and finally, out of frame—as it turns out, forever.
The tsunami struck within minutes. Roiling water surged more than 42 feet high in the streets, floating boats, cars and debris within inches of survivors who’d clambered to the city hall’s roof.
The young man in the yellow jacket, Monty Dickson of Anchorage, was lost along with more than 15,000 others. His body was found three weeks later, a full kilometer beyond the city hall building.
Those few images are the last family and friends ever saw of Dickson. A cum laude graduate from UAA in Languages with an emphasis in Japanese and a minor in Philosophy, Dickson was in his second year as a JET, teaching English in the local countryside for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme.
When Hiroko Harada arrived at UAA in 1998 to begin teaching Japanese, she looked around the campus for a symbol of Japan. The University of Illinois, where she came from, had a Japan House; she could find nothing similar at UAA. She felt the absence.
He graduated in 2009 and qualified for the JET Programme. She saw him, her own son, and fellow UAA graduate Steven Wilson, off at the Anchorage airport to begin their three-year service as JETs.
The day of the tsunami, a very worried Harada dispatched emails to her son, Steven and Monty: “Are you OK?” Steven and her son answered right away. But Harada started to get nervous when there was no word from the usually prompt Monty.
“From then, life changed,” she remembered. A huge network of Monty’s Anchorage family—sister Shelley and brother Ian—and school friends searched for him, but to no avail. His body was found April 4.
Two American JETs, Monty, 26, and Taylor Anderson, 24, of Macon-Randolph University in Virginia, died in the tsunami. The Japan Foundation, a program sponsor, approached the families and then both universities to establish memorial projects in their names.
Harada proposed that UAA use the foundation support to establish the Montgomery Dickson Center for Japanese Language and Culture. Each year for five years, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership provides up to $100,000 for cultural activities and educational opportunities at each university. The university, in turn, seeks to establish this permanent center through community support.
“It was Monty’s dream to serve as a bridge when he went to Japan,” Harada says. “We are trying to realize his dream through this center.” She specifically invited his friend and fellow JET, Steven Wilson, to work with her to set up the center. A campus classroom will be converted into a Tea Room in November 2014, designed for teaching elaborate tea ceremonies and other facets of Japanese culture.
It’s OK to slurp
Ramen Day at Dimond High School’s multipurpose room Feb. 15 featured a lively
guest lecture by Barak Kushner, a professor of East Asian Studies from Cambridge University who’s just published a relevant book, “Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen—Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup.”
Before we go further, settle in your mind the difference between cellophane ramen and real ramen. They have nothing in common, Kushner will tell you.
Dry ramen (boil three minutes and add a spice packet) was invented after World War II by Momofuku Ando to stem a post-war food shortage. “Real” ramen is all about the broth, which can take 36 hours to prepare, involve whole pigs and entire chickens, and took a thousand years to develop in Japan.
As Kushner—a food historian, not a food critic— tells it, Buddhist monks brought Chinese food technology back with them after studying on the mainland in the 1800s. The monks needed to support themselves, so they started preparing noodle soup the Chinese way, including meat broth and springy wheat noodles instead of Japan’s traditional soft buckwheat noodles and fish stock. It was nothing short of a revolution.
His message wasn’t lost on a hungry Anchorage audience of American and Japanese residents and college and high school language students. After the talk, they queued up for samples, whipped up in just five hours by local Japanese families and university students.
NOTE: A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared in the Anchorage Daily News Feb. 23, 2014.