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Dignity in the face of tragedy

Japanese show strength in aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

By Staff photographer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2011

People listen to speeches during the Ishinomaki, Japan, memorial service honoring the 5,500 people from this city who have been confirmed dead or who are still missing.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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On a recent trip to Japan, I photographed mostly the physical aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami tragedy: flattened coastlines, carefully separated piles of debris, untouched towns abandoned to radioactivity. But I also experienced things most rarely get to see.

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A memorial service for the 5,000 people lost from the city of Ishinomaki was held inside a huge white tent. Every seat was taken. The service was in Japanese, so I couldn't understand what was said, but many times I had to hold back my own tears and would turn away to compose myself.

In Japanese culture, people don't usually cry or hug in public. They remain stoic; they bow. But it was impossible not to feel the emotion at the service.

In the past, Japanese stoicism felt cold to my American sensibilities. Now I only feel respect for their strength and calm in the face of unimaginable tragedy. I am reminded, again, that most cultural differences are only on the surface. Inside, we all feel the same.

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