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Karen Brauer finished up her mycharity: water campaign earlier this month. She lives and teaches English on a tiny island called Iki off the mainland coast of Japan — where she stumbled upon a jarring connection between a local family and charity: water’s vision to bring water to those without it.
My car’s windshield insisted on fogging up. The heater and air conditioner in my 14-year-old clunker just wasn’t up to the task any longer. I worked around it, wiping down the inside with a towel every minute or so and squinted through the rain. To my left, Michiko tried not to seem uncomfortable as I drove slowly through the winding Iki streets.
“Turn here,” she ordered, pointing. A detailed map of Iki sat on her lap. “Right—oh, I mean left, after the karate dojo.”
I checked out the decrepit old building to my right, which looked like it contained a million interesting secrets. “That’s a karate dojo?” I asked, wondering at the peeling paint and tired old wood. “Man, I would love to study karate there!”
Michiko laughed as I turned the car and forced my eyes away. “Turn right at the next street, I think.”
I did as directed. “Okay.”
The driveway to Mr. Wakamura’s house was long and narrow. The house itself was short and squat but adorably lined with a myriad of flowers and vegetables hampered down for the winter. A small pile of chopped wood moistened under the sprinkling rain. Mr. Wakamura stood outside, smoking a cigarette, his spine curved from years of work. When he saw us, he waved and stepped back inside, moving slow with a cane for help.
“Excuse us, but is this the Wakamura household?” Michiko asked in Japanese when we got out of the car.
“Yes!” Mr. Wakamura yelled over his shoulder, not employing any of the polite greetings which had been drilled into me since arriving on Iki more than a year earlier.
Michiko and I hurried forward into the open entryway. “We’re from the local middle school,” Michiko explained. “This is Katharine Brauer. You called on Monday about donating, right?”
The man, his hair white and thin and his skin a sandpaper tan, grunted as he hefted himself past the genkan and into a nearby tatami room. His wife, equally old but obviously much more spry than her husband, polished the wooden entrance and sent us an apologetic look. “We’re very glad you came.”
I threw on what I hoped was my award-winning smile. “We’re happy to come,” I said in Japanese, adding an “o-tsukare-sama desu”-thank you for all your hard work-for good measure.
Mr. Wakamura shuffled back in, a crisp white envelope in his hand. “This is the donation.” He set aside the clipping of the article I wrote for the local newspaper and handed it to me, bowing. I bowed right back and murmured “arigatou gozaimasu” about 18 times.
“Oh, did you hear about charity: water in the newspaper?” Michiko asked. There was a short pause. I peeked at Michiko to see if we were supposed to leave, or if there were more nuances of Japanese politeness to observe.
Then Mr. Wakamura, in his grumbly old-man voice, using a sort of comfortable Japanese that I had to strain to understand, cleared his throat.
“I came to Iki after the war, you know. I’m originally from Nagasaki. I lived in the city during the war and I survived the atomic bombing. I remember the heat from the bomb. I remember walking for hours each day to get water afterward. When I heard about the charity, I decided to donate.”
I stared at Michiko, stunned, looking for confirmation that I’d understood his words correctly.
“Ah, he’s explaining why he’s donating,” she murmured in English.
“Right, got that.” I shook my head of the cobwebs and bowed my heart out. I switched back to Japanese. “You are too kind, Mr. Wakamura! Thank you so much, really. This is amazing.”
He shrugged. Just shrugged.
“It was terrible after the atomic bomb. I don’t want others to go through that, too.”
Then he shut his mouth and didn’t open it again. Michiko and I were dismissed.
I stumbled back outside, my mind spinning. Drops of water splashed onto my face faster than before. I stared at the narrow driveway and blinked. “It’s gonna be fun getting out of here.”
I couldn’t quite process what had just happened. I’d met an atomic bomb survivor. He’d donated to charity: water, a New York-based organization that builds wells and other water projects in countries where access to clean water is difficult if not downright impossible. He’d done it because he remembered collecting water himself after a tragedy that left two big, angry black splotches on the Japanese and American consciousness.
Images rushed through my head as I settled into the driver’s seat and turned the key. Memories from walking through the peace museum in Hiroshima—their exhibit on the people who begged for water just after the explosion, water that ended up killing them as soon as it touched their tongues. Strolling through the peace park in Nagasaki, blinking at the statue sent from the USSR before it fell. Thousands of multicolored paper cranes. Roof tiles warped by the bomb.
Mr. Wakamura experienced that hurt. He lived through the aftermath. And more than 60 years later, he channeled that tragedy into a donation for five people he’d never met and will probably never meet. He gave them clean water because he knew its importance.
After I made it down the treacherous driveway and Michiko settled into the seat next to me, I said, “Can you believe that?”
She made one of those noises that means she’s really impressed and touched. That quintessential Japanese noise that comes from the back of the throat and spreads out around them like a halo. “Yes, it’s a good story, isn’t it?”
I agreed and I shook my head as I picked up the towel to wipe my foggy windshield.
– Katherine Brauer, Iki-shi, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan