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To Japan, With Love

How A Friendship Between Tokyo And RiverDell Knows No Distance

When Hiroshi Onada and his wife Ayano first arrived in the area, their daughter Monono, was a toddler. Hiroshi had been assigned to work for the next several years at the American branch of his company.

Left behind in Tokyo were his daughter's grandparents, as well as the family's neighbors and friends. Everyone and everything that had always been familiar was on the other side of the world.

But although their English was limited, their enthusiasm was not.

"We came in springtime," Ayono recalls. "There were many, many beautifully colored trees and the air was so fresh!"

My own daughter was a toddler then as well. Ayano and I first met in a local park, two moms pushing their strollers amid a sea of moms pushing strollers.

I was struck by how carefully Ayano watched after her little girl. Whenever she spoke to the child (in Japanese), even to admonish her, it was done in a soft voice, with a distinct undercurrent of kindness that required no translation.

Our daughters instantly became fast friends. English was irrelevant to them; both were just learning to talk. Many playdates followed, as well as jaunts to , , dinner at the and trick-or-treating at Halloween.

Together the girls teetered on either side of Santa's lap at the annual town tree-lighting, eyeing a suspiciously slim Mrs. Claus. On a frigid winter afternoon we all squeezed into a photo booth at the because there was absolutely nothing else to do; and nothing else could have possibly been as much fun.

The Onada family inspired me enormously, especially Ayano.

She gave birth to her son, Kota, while living here. She drove herself and her children wherever they needed to go without a moment's hesitation. Ayano was determined to experience her American life fully and did so, without apprehension or excuses. Gradually her English took on a more confident richness.

Sometimes as I walked up the path leading to the house they were renting, I would glimpse her through the window, sitting at the kitchen table and studying English.

While our children played Ayano and I would talk. She showed me pictures of Japan, talked about her parents and the job in Tokyo where she had worked as a publications editor for a large company.

When I asked her what she thought her daughter would take away from the experience of living in RiverDell, Ayano said, "In preschool she played with many children from various countries. Maybe she will always remember and respect that there are so many different people in the world."

Ayano also told me that because Japan is primarily a "homogeneous nation, I understand all the cultures, customs, religion and taboos. I can guess what other people are thinking." But here the signals are mixed and many, so while it was wildly confusing, it was also an incredible learning experience.

Now, thanks to the magic of Skype, despite the distance and the years, our families remain close.

Almost every week we Skype together.

Usually our day is done and we are nearly ready for bed.
But in Japan it is already tomorrow.

Often the Onada family is wearing their pajamas and eating breakfast, while we have yet to sleep. Still, the children sing songs together, wish each other "Happy Birthday" and giggle inanely at nothing adults can possibly comprehend. Sometimes they eat ice cream together, a dish of vanilla for my daughter, strawberry for Momono (even though for her it is breakfast).

I feel fortunate to have friends who live each day in tomorrow. Maybe somehow that makes me believe, with the irrationality of a child, that tomorrow will definitely come.

But tomorrow can be a dangerous place.

Last week we woke to the news. On CNN I watched the terrible wave as it swept so much impossible sadness across Japan.

"Contact Ayano," my husband urged. "This is bad."

I tried. And tried. But nothing. Finally, an email appeared in my Inbox whose subject said simply: WE ARE OK.

For all the thousands who are not, please donate to The American Red Cross.

Cous Vicki March 16, 2011 at 07:52 PM
Very touching. We are so glad the Onada family is well. Keep us posted. Please, everyone, donate what you can to whichever charitable company you wish to, just as long as you send something. Every $5, $10, even a dollar adds up when thousands join in. Cous, Vicki
Phyllis Blumenfeld March 17, 2011 at 05:56 PM
I am so glad to hear that Isabella's friend and her family are fine. Considering the pictures of the devestation from the earthquake and tsunami, it is a miracle that anyone at all survived. My heart goes out to those who have suffered a loss. It is a terrible tragedy and unfortunately when the debris is cleared and life goes on, it will never be the same. Aunt Phyllis
Kevin Kahn March 18, 2011 at 12:51 AM
What a great article! It so captures what friendship is about and the way our world is so much smaller that it sometimes appears - especially in times of such tragedy.
Carl N Oerke Jr April 08, 2011 at 02:26 AM
Received a phone call tonight 7 April 2011 from Ayano Onoda. She and family are well. The Onoda's rented my mom's house in River Edge while they were here and became members of the family. We are relieved to learn that they are all safe and sound following the earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactor problems and aftershocks. All our best to Hiroshi, Ayano, Momono and Kota. Happy Birthday Momono.
Andrea Kahn April 08, 2011 at 03:58 AM
Hello Carl, Thanks for the update from the Onada's! I actually met your lovely mother when I visited them after Kota was born. Ayano really likes her so much! So many people have been asking me about their well being, and I'm glad that you posted the info for so many who care about them.

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