June 15, 2011

JAPAN: Message from Kenji Watanabe, 66, inspires students, quake survivors

TOKYO / Japan Today / Lifestyle / June 15, 2011

By Asako Takaguchi

A message from the principal of a high school in the Tokyo suburbs, urging graduating students to appreciate their lives and help Japan recover from the March 11 catastrophes, has inspired readers around the country, including disaster survivors, after spreading via the Internet.

The message by Kenji Watanabe, head of the private Rikkyo Niiza Junior and Senior High School in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture (photo on right), received considerable publicity after it was posted on the school’s website and spread widely via social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. His strong, positive words and compassion for others seem to have won support from readers.

‘‘The time of youth called ‘college’ is a brilliant moment…Ask (yourself), ‘What are my dreams?’‘’ Watanabe’s message read, but added that the point of going to college is ‘‘the freedom to stop and look directly at reality.’‘

Watanabe, who took up his post at the all-boys school in August last year, tells the students how wonderful and beautiful life is. But he also calls on them to realize how privileged most of them are to be going on automatically to St Paul’s University attached to the high school.

The message was written as a speech for the commencement ceremony that had been scheduled for March 14. It was posted on the school website later in the month after the event was cancelled because of post-quake rolling blackouts triggered by the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

‘‘I wanted to tell my students to have a full appreciation for life as they walk out of the school into a bright and promising future, but wanted them to remember well that they are graduating at the time of a disaster’’ when many people are still suffering, he said. ‘‘That is why I repeatedly told them to do some soul-searching during their college life and look reality in the face.’‘

Watanabe, a 66-year-old scholar in Japanese literature and professor emeritus of St Paul’s University in Tokyo, wrote his speech in an exhortatory style. His at times old-fashioned, poetic idiom appears to have captured the imagination of many readers.

Watanabe used words such as ‘‘ocean’’ and ‘‘storm’’ as symbols of the difficulties the Japanese people now face, and those the students may face in the course of their soul-searching, in an apparent reference to the tsunami that ravaged a wide area of northeastern Japan.

He urged the students not to ‘‘forget this time of graduation, which came at the time of disasters,’’ and to struggle against obstacles or sadness they may encounter, no matter how great these may be.

He encouraged them to keep asking themselves about the meaning of life and think about living together with others, because ‘‘that is the only way to overcome hardship.’‘

Watanabe called on each student to transform himself ‘‘from a person who is loved, to one who loves others’’ and he urged them to have courage ‘‘to set sail even if it is a stormy sea’’ to become ‘‘the leaders for reconstructing Japan.’‘

‘‘Let us voice our support for friends in the areas affected by the disaster ... Let them know that we are with them.’‘

Watanabe said he first hesitated to publish the message as he was worried that his words might sound unsympathetic to survivors.

He thought that no matter how hard people outside the devastated areas tried, they would never be able to fully understand how deep the sorrow could be. ‘‘Sometimes, words are useless,’’ he said.

Contrary to his fears, Watanabe’s message attracted many readers, including alumni of the school and their family members, as well as general readers including survivors of the disasters, who wrote complimentary messages on the Internet or sent e-mails to Watanabe, saying they were touched and encouraged by the message.

Yusuke Tanaka, a graduate of the high school, said ‘‘In the message, I liked the part where he calls on us to become the leaders of Japan’s reconstruction.’’ ‘‘These words really inspired me as I have stepped into a new world at the university.’‘

A female graduate of St Paul’s University, whose house in Sendai in the northeastern Japan prefecture of Miyagi was destroyed on March 11, sent an e-mail to Watanabe, saying ‘‘After reading the message, I was able to sort out my feelings.’‘

‘‘His words were deeply implanted in my heart. Now I’m thinking what I can do for others, everyday,’’ said Hajime Akiyama, who also graduated from the boys’ school in March.

The impact of the message has prompted a Japanese publisher Futabasha Publishing Co to compile a book of the message and other of Watanabe’s writings addressed to young people living in a post ‘‘3/11’’ world. It goes on sale on June 15.

© 2011 Kyodo News