It’s been almost a year since the Great East Japan Earthquake and almost six months since I returned to Fukushima and this will be the first thing I have posted about it since my week long adventure into the place I called home for so long.
I have agonized over the writing of this for months now. While in Fukushima, I learned, saw and felt so many new things. The main feeling I came away with after having been there was one of inspiration. The people in Fukushima, foreigners and Japanese, were all so very inspirational. The vigor that they put into the community there and how they defend and care for Fukushima and it’s reputation was nothing short of remarkable.
I’ll be honest, while I did go back to Fukushima on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ dime, my main motivation for going back wasn’t to spread the word that Fukushima or Japan was safe, as I’m sure those at the MOFA building who met with me on my first night in Tokyo would have loved for me to do. After everything I had read in the news or on blogs around the world that gave a range of views on the situation in Fukushima, I needed to see it with my own eyes so that I could put my mind at ease as to the safety of my friends, former co-workers and students.
I had planned to write pages and pages about Fukushima, what had happened, what I had been through, what the people there had been through and what it had all meant for the world at large. Even after my trip out to the coast of Fukushima to see Soma and what had become of it, I wasn’t deterred. But that changed on my last day in Fukushima while teaching at my favourite school in Nihonmatsu. I had brought a few bilingual copies of Quakebook with me as a gift to the school and throughout the entire class, two girls continually poured over the stories in it. As they silently wept in the back of the classroom, but refused to stop reading the stories that brought them so much pain, I felt the division between those who had experienced the earthquake and those who had not grow even further apart. Until that point, I felt that I could potentially pull off an accurate representation of how Fukushima felt and how it was. But in that moment, watching two of my former students cry openly, but quietly in the back of the room while refusing to stop reading, I knew that nothing I ever wrote would be good enough. I can tell you now, that this post is not good enough.
Through all of the drinking, smoking, dancing and general reminiscing that I took part in while back in Fukushima I sensed quite a few changes, not in the landscape or in buildings that had closed because of earthquake damage, but in the people there. The foreign community has maintained the ex-pat lifestyle that I lived while stepping up their community involvement. Every ALT I encountered was like a reverse Batman of sorts, dancing, drinking and socializing late into the night, and up at the crack of dawn to fund-raise and volunteer by day. All of them are superheroes.
While there is no all encompassing viewpoint that can be assigned to the people living in Fukushima, one overarching sentiment that seemed to come from everyone I spoke to was that, they’re all happy to be there and wouldn’t be anywhere else, no matter what. The one thing that I think people looking in from the outside fail to see about those still living in Fukushima, is that they’ve gone through this disaster together and through it they’ve become closer. If it hadn’t been for those around them and the general attitude of the people in Fukushima at a time of crisis, who knows where they would be now.
There’s a real sense that life is finite for the people there. When I asked a group of friends why they had stayed despite the radiation, one remarked, “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, what do I care if I get cancer in 40 years, I have to die of something.” While to most this may seem a bit over the top, it made sense. The people who were in Fukushima a year ago went through something that most people will never go through and from that they’ve gained a new perspective on life. The main goal of those there is not to restore Fukushima, but to continue living as they were so that a semblance of normality will remain and continue into the future.
Radiation does play a part in everyday life there, but it’s something that everyone has come to accept. One ALT said, “We talk about radiation like we talk about the weather.” And responses to combat its effects were very different and personal. A Japanese Teacher of English told me that she uses food from different prefectures, along with a different set of pots and pans to cook for her children, while she uses Fukushima produce to cook for herself and her husband. When I asked if she would consider leaving Fukushima, she vehemently answered, no, going on to say that her family was there and she would never abandon the place that was her home.
Everyone in Fukushima is making due with the changes that come from living in an area where radiation is an issue, but it didn’t seem to stop anyone from doing all of the things that they had done before the earthquake. I attended the Annual Autumn Festival in Aizu Wakamatsu on my first night back in Fukushima and even visited temples that were as breathtaking as they had been a year ago, where tourists, while sparse, also took in the beauty that Fukushima prefecture has to offer.
At Fukushima Senior High School more than half of the school had been condemned due to earthquake damage and temporary buildings have been erected. When heading into my first class there, with Jason Ishida, the current Fukushima SHS ALT, he said, “I’m interested to see how winter goes, it’ll probably be warmer in these buildings than the classrooms in the school normally are.” This positive spin was everywhere, and while to some it may seem like the people there are viewing the glass as half full on every issue, it’s more of a coping mechanism. The people there have decided to stay, and instead of living in fear of what could happen or what might be around the corner, they’ve moved on, accepting what their current situation is and dealing with it as they see fit.
At Adachi Senior High School in Nihonmatsu city, I was amazed to see that a Senior High School from Namie had been transplanted into the school and was running it’s own curriculum. While the Adachi students were partaking in their Sports Day, the staff from Namie SHS were in teaching classes as their school’s Sports Day wouldn’t be for another week. Two principals, two vice-principals and the staff from both schools had merged together and accommodated each other. Adachi’s Sports Day, while normally held outside, had been moved to a nearby community center. When I arrived it looked like any other sports day with augmented events to deal with the space and everyone I talked to seemed to take it all in stride.
The people of Fukushima have taken everything that’s been thrown at them and when I asked why they had all stayed, foreigners and Japanese people alike answered that Fukushima was their home and if they weren’t there to continue on, who would do it. The fundamental change in the ex-pat community as well as the Japanese community was palpable. While wearing my “I Akabeko Fukushima” t-shirt outside of Koriyama station, I was met with bows, smiles and thank you’s from the locals, something in all my time as an ALT in Fukushima I had never experienced to such a degree. On the flip side of it all, the ex-pat community is now, more than ever tied to Fukushima. And both groups have the same goal in mind to continue to live, work and play in Fukushima in order to put the disaster behind them and move on into a brighter future.
In the end, I think Japan is safe, but more than that, Japan and the people in it are inspiring, now more than ever. As for Fukushima, my trip back showed me that the ex-pat and Japanese community have everything there under control. And while they may not be able to control every aspect of life in Fukushima, those aspects that they cannot control will not bring them down. The people in Fukushima have a sense for how precious life really is, more so than anyone else that I’ve met and despite all of the fear that they face on a daily basis, they continue to live their lives as they always have, inspiring those around them to do the same. I am proud to have lived and worked with these people and to have called Fukushima my home.
– If you’re interested in reading more about Fukushima, please check out James Foley’s infinitely better written piece Fear & Traveling in Fukushima