On our last day in Iwate prefecture, my Corps, a group of teenagers brought together for the “Drums for Peace” program in Japan, found ourselves at a sacred site of the Japanese Meiji Revolution. As a break from the volunteering we had done that week in Kamaishi, I looked at my surroundings and truly felt grateful for the opportunity to have received a scholarship. Not only to give back, but to learn with a diverse group of people that I came to see as family. But most of all, this journey through Japan brought me back to my own roots in ways that will shape me forever.
After a scavenger hunt around the site, we made our way to a nearby shop for a traditional Japanese lunch, giving our formal greetings, “Yoroshiku onegaishamis” to the shop owner. We were excited and prepared to enjoy a meal that she was all too concerned we wouldn’t like, being a group of students from across the world engaging in Japanese culture for the first time. But I had already fallen in love with meals like the bowl of freshly baked purple potatoes, and katsu during my three weeks there, although a far cry from my Dominican dishes made by my abuela back home. It reminded me of myself as a child, who was afraid to try new things, let alone venture across the world and immerse myself in them.
Growing up in West Harlem, I never imagined I would be experiencing the culture and community of Japan. I was not encouraged by my community or society to succeed in education. With my father absent from my life, and my mother unable to raise me herself due to how much she had to work to provide for us, being raised by my grandparents showed me the true meaning of appreciation. My mama and papa gave me all the warmth and care that I ever needed to believe in myself, and taught me to value education and my Dominican roots. Being under the wings of immigrants, I was able to synchronize my American identity with my Dominican heritage. This allowed me to have a deep empathy for my work in Japan, thanks to how they have nurtured me.
We finished our lunch and dessert and left to explore a ravaged park on the outskirts of the historical site. The buildings were strewn with glass and sharp objects, with walls riddled with holes. What struck me was the destruction left by the earthquake and tsunami—there, and in regions I had visited all throughout Kamaishi; the once vibrant communities were reduced, in most places, to desolation. In that moment, I truly realized the importance of finding my place in rebuilding the world. This disaster in such a beautiful tranquil place will forever mark what sparked my passion for environmental advocacy moving forward.
After exploring the Meiji site and taking in its gravity, Andras-san, our Corps leader, suggested something not on the itinerary: to perform “Minori Uta” to thank the shop owner. We decided to do this as a sign of gratitude for her hospitality and kindness, especially as her community was still suffering from the impact of the 2011 earthquake. “En yo ho eiya! Enyo ho ho ha!” boomed through the air. Tears began to flow down the shop owner’s cheek, but also my own. I saw my grandparents through her at that moment; the love and care I’d received from them, with only the hope of my happiness and success asked in return. I felt the universal principles of my mission begin to solidify in my heart and mind.
The music we learned and played throughout Japan taught me the power of spreading positivity, as loud as a wadaiko drum roar. I vowed to practice spreading love and virtue when I returned back to the states, and always in my life. At the end of the night, we left remarks in the shop owner’s guestbook. “Arigatou gozaimasu,” I wrote, showing my gratitude, hoping that peace could be returned to her life, as I finally, with new eyes, started to begin mine.