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Dignity in the face of tragedy

Japanese show strength in aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

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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.

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.

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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.