One Man in Japan

Newsroom

Newsroom

I don’t know much about Japan, natural disasters or nuclear power — certainly nothing to add to the rugged roadside reporting of Anderson Cooper and Novi’s own Dr. Sanjay Gupta — but I do know one person in Japan; and I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Ken over these past few weeks.

Kanenori “Ken” Morikawa, his parents and two sisters moved from Tokyo to Bloomfield Township when we were in fourth grade. His dad worked for Toyota, and they bought a big house — heavy on fragrant food, light on furniture — near the Maple Theatre.

In the United Nations that was Conant Elementary School, the kids or their families were from all over the world: Korea (Gene), Germany (Lisa), Brazil (Bruno), Egypt (Hebba), Greece (JoAnna ), Iran (Marcy), India (Renu) and Utah (John and Julie Wirthlin and their 15 siblings). To us, Ken was not particularly exotic; his arrival was greeted with little fanfare and lots of basketball.

I don’t remember Ken ever having trouble with English, though our universal language was video games — fluency achieved playing the brand new Super Nintendo, with Italian plumbers eating mushrooms and riding friendly dragons through extensive sewer systems.

International understanding was cemented at my house by repeated VHS viewings of Three Ninjas, the underrated 1992 film where three American boys master karate under the tutelage of their inexplicably Japanese grandfather. (It somehow lost the Oscar race for Best Picture to Unforgiven.)
Each time Ken’s mom, who spoke almost no English, would pick him up, she would say “thank you” again and again and give us a folding paper fan, a bag of oranges or some other small gift.

Less than two years later, Mr. Morikawa got word he was being transferred back to Japan. On hearing the news, my parents immediately offered to have Ken move in with us — a kindly, if impulsive, gesture that must have induced some uniquely Japanese combination of honor and horror among the Morikawas. Effusively, they said “thank you” again and again.

Ken and I wrote each other a couple of letters, and then — letter writing not being a forte of newly adolescent boys — silence soon set in.
In 2005, Ken materialized out of the blue at Maple and Telegraph with a 1992 Conant phone directory in hand — and the stunned realization that the populous Wirthlin family had moved.

He had flown to Detroit without advance notice, taken a taxi to the ’burbs, found his way to a classmate’s parents’ house and then to mine. He was visiting the States before heading back to become “a businessman in Toyota,” with a three-year assignment at a location to be determined.

So, we did the only logical thing we could do with our short time together: shopping at Value Village for dozens of second-hand T-shirts. Turns out those bar mitzvah shirts and intramural sports jerseys go for big bucks in Japan.

Ken gave them away as gifts back home and later confirmed, “Everybody loved the T-Shirts. It really saved my shopping expenses last year!” (Offsetting, at least, the Detroit cab fare.)

Six years on, Ken and I have yet to turn our T-shirt scheme into a trans-Pacific business venture. On March 5, Ken became a father, posting “Junior Born!” on Facebook via iPhone.

On March 11, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northeast Japan. I e-mailed and stalked him on Facebook with no word.

After a week of high anxiety, Ken replied: “I’m OK! My region is west from where the earthquake and tsunami hit. Thank you again for the worry.” RT

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