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Hometown U: New Japanese culture center commemorates UAA tsunami victim

Kathleen McCoy
Aki Fujita helps prepare ramen at the Ramen Day event. Philip Hall

The date is March 11, 2011. The location is the coastal town of Rikuzentakata on the northwest coast of Japan, in front of city hall. Earlier this day, a magnitude-9 earthquake off the coast had convulsed the ocean floor. Now, local residents await the tsunami warning.

A shaky phone video stares at the white stripes of a city parking lot, then pans up to a small crowd, milling and waiting. A loudspeaker proclaims in Japanese, "Tsunami has gone over the sea gate. Please evacuate immediately."

Sirens blare. The loudspeaker comes again, more urgently: "Now, great tsunami warning is declared. Tsunami has gone over the embankment! Residents please evacuate immediately."

Still, people are standing or moving slowly. There is no panic. A young American in a yellow coat, gray hat and glasses, with a green messenger bag slung over his shoulder, walks away from the anonymous camera, then back again, and finally, out of frame -- forever, as it turns out.

The tsunami struck within minutes. Roiling water surged more than 42 feet deep in the streets, floating boats, cars and debris within inches of survivors who'd clambered to the city hall roof.

The young man in the yellow jacket, Monty Dickson of Anchorage, was lost along with more than 15,000 others. His body was found three weeks later, a full kilometer beyond the city hall.

Those few images are the last family and friends ever saw of Dickson. A cum laude graduate of UAA in Languages with an emphasis in Japanese and a minor in Philosophy, Dickson was in his second year teaching English in the local countryside for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme.

Remembering Monty

When Hiroko Harada arrived at UAA in 1998 to begin teaching Japanese, she looked around the campus for a symbol of Japan. The University of Illinois, where she came from, had a Japan House; she could find nothing similar at UAA. She felt the absence.

Monty Dickson was one of her students. He graduated in 2009 with degrees in English and Japanese, and qualified for the JET program. She saw him, her own son, and fellow UAA graduate Steven Wilson, off at the Anchorage airport to begin their three-year service as language teachers.

The day of the tsunami, a very worried Harada dispatched emails to her son, Steven and Monty: "Are you OK?" Steven and her son answered right away. But Harada started to get nervous when there was no word from the usually prompt Monty.

"From then, life changed," she remembered. A huge network of Monty's Anchorage family -- sister, Shelley, and brother, Ian -- and school friends searched for him, but to no avail. His body was finally found on April 4.

Two American teachers with the JET program, Monty, 26, and Taylor Anderson, 24, of Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, died in the tsunami. The Japan Foundation, a program sponsor, approached the families and then both universities to establish memorial projects in their names.

Harada proposed UAA use the foundation's support to establish the Montgomery Dickson Center for Japanese Language and Culture. Each year, for five years, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership provides up to $100,000 for cultural activities and educational opportunities at each university. The university, in turn, seeks to establish this permanent center though community support.

"It was Monty's dream to serve as a bridge when he went to Japan," Harada says. "We are trying to realize his dream through this center." A campus classroom will be converted into a Tea Room in November 2014, designed for teaching elaborate tea ceremonies and other facets of Japanese culture.

It's OK to slurp

Ramen Day at Dimond High School's multipurpose room on Feb. 15 featured a lively guest lecture by Barak Kushner, a professor of East Asian Studies from Cambridge University, who has just published a relevant book, "Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen -- Japan's Favorite Noodle Soup."

Before we go further, settle in your mind the difference between cellophane ramen and real ramen. They have nothing in common, Kushner will tell you.

Dry ramen (boil three minutes and add a spice packet) was invented after World War II by Momofuku Ando to stem a post-war food shortage. "Real" ramen is all about the broth, which can take 36 hours to prepare, involve whole pigs and entire chickens, and took thousands of years to develop in Japan.

As Kushner -- a food historian, not a food critic -- tells it, Buddhist monks brought Chinese food technology back with them after studying on the mainland in the 1800s. The monks needed to support themselves, so they started preparing noodle soup the Chinese way, including meat broth and springy wheat noodles instead of Japan's traditional soft buckwheat noodles and fish stock. It was nothing short of a revolution.

Kushner's message wasn't lost on a hungry Anchorage audience of American and Japanese residents and college and high school language students. After the talk, they queued up for samples, whipped up in just five hours by local Japanese families and university students.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy