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.

Hearts for Haragama Volunteer Event

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.

The temporary building at Fukushima SHS

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.

Adachi SHS Sports Day

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


MOtoshop War for #Movember

What started out as an innocent little bit of photoshop work to promote my Movember Team Fukushimo, a play on Fukushima, Japan, as the team is made up of current and former residents with a few others sprinkled in, has turned into a game of “Which barely literate idiot can click enough filters on photoshop to best the other.”  It has been a decent bit of entertainment or dare I say, Brentertainment over the last couple days for the masses on facebook and twitter, and by masses, I mean, me, my mother and probably Steve, my worthy advesary.  My last Movember update featured a few of these pics, but I’m going to use this post to update all of them as I’m sure there will be a few more added throughout the month, so feel free to check back later for more.

If you’re feeling generous, head to my Movember Page and donate to me, my team or any other team really and if you want to see what our merry band of Mo Misfits looks like, here are all of our social media hubs of glory.

Now to the MOtoshop! Obviously in chronological order.

It all started so innocently, look at Steve’s face, he just looks like he should be the girl in this right??  I on the other hand, well, look at my rippling abs!

Done by Brent

That little ditty, was followed by 2 pictures from Steve… Continue reading

A brief Movember/Fukushimo Update

Well, our team is almost at $800 by mid month, but for some reason everything has slowed down quite a bit in the last little while.  Here’s hoping that some of the horribly bad photoshopping I’ve been doing over the last little while creates a spark of some sort.  If you’re wondering what why November and Fukushima have been spelled incorrectly in the title.  I refer you to my previous blog.  For those in the know, click to behold my photoshopping skillz.

Continue reading

Tokyo is as Tokyo was, big and bright – Return to Tohoku #4

And I’m back on the blogging.  I wrote pretty much of all of this while I was in Japan and honestly it’s a bit too travel blog like for me, but it marks how I was feeling at the time.  I’ve added in a few things and taken out some of the more flowery language.  If anything it’s just a starting point for me to begin to actually put down my thoughts and feelings on the trip that I returned from a little under a month ago.  

Arriving in Japan felt more normal then I had assumed it would.  There wasn’t a wave of culture shock or nostalgia that swept me up in strong emotions.  Instead, it felt pretty regular.  The only difference from all other times that I’ve returned toJapanwas that I stood in the line for foreign passports, and it did make me feel like Japan was no longer my home, I was just another tourist.

While it all felt like it did a year ago, certain things stood out to me despite having been off the plane for no more than forty minutes.  When I arrived in the Narita JR office to claim my rail pass, bobble head Akabekos that are ubiquitous in Fukushima tourist spots, adorned the desk, along with a large Daruma in the corner.  I thought that this was, at the very least, a decent, understated show of solidarity with the Tohoku area.  And most likely, very few Japanese people outside of Tohoku know what the Akabeko is.  But, as I’ve blogged before, for the JET community, the Akabeko has become the unofficial mascot.  It’s the name of JET soccer teams and has become a symbol that foreigners within Fukushima identify with.

Arriving at Tokyo station, at around 6:30pm, emerging from the rather spacious and partially empty train, I was thrown in with the orderly throngs of people surging through the labyrinth that is Tokyo station.  A wash in a sea of white button up shirts and black suits, I joined the masses.  After walking through Tokyo station for a few minutes, the sheer size of it once again amazed me.  Moving through the groups of people, there was very little noise.  Outside on the street, I felt out of place without a clear umbrella to shield myself from the rain.  Here, the silence was even more deafening. Tokyo station, while being a major hub, is surrounded in tall office buildings and doesn’t have much of a night life.  People on the streets were filing out of their respective places of work looking forward to the long weekend ahead of them.

My business hotel room was, well, Japanese and by that I mean, small.  There was enough space for a bed, desk and bathroom with a tiny walkway between the bed and the desk, but perfectly suited to fit my needs.  The view from the window was the typical view that you get from most buildings in Tokyo, the wall of the neighbouring Mizuho bank.

I arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 30 minutes late, after having figured I could make it through Tokyo station fast enough to get to the hotel and try and clean myself up a bit so that I didn’t appear to be the dishevelled human being that had spent the last 20 hours in transit.  After sorting out where MOFA was and where I was supposed to be I was escorted to a small room on the 3rd floor by an employee and a woman from the Japanese Tourism Board.  It appeared to be your average Japanese government office, but again, with a small difference in that very few lights were on.  “Setsuden,” the MOFA employee explained was the reason for the eerie lighting.  Once again, another sign that the disaster and it’s after effects are everywhere and that must be a constant reminder to the Japanese people even far away from Fukushim in the offices ofTokyo.

After going over travel documents and the like, I told the MOFA employees what I had planned.  When I asked what they wanted out of all of this from me they said that they want people to know that Japan is safe.  I told them that I didn’t think all of Japanwas indeed “safe” they responded that, well, most of Japan is.  And that made me think of a of the first contribution in Reimagining Japan by Yoichi Funabashi, the former editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun.  He says that Tohoku, “has always served as a power source, manufacturing supplier, breadbasket and labor force for Tokyo, functioning essentially as an outsourcer supporting Tokyo’s prosperity.”  It seemed to me that this was potentiallyTokyo using Tohoku once again.

The sheets that were given to me outlined that the other participants and had been invited to Japan to “deepen [our] understanding on the current situation in Japan…and to communicate what [we] see and experience in Japan on [our] return home.”  And that’s what I planned to do, little did I know how the coming days would effect me and how little I was prepared to deal with the seriousness of what was going on.

After my meeting with MOFA, I headed straight to a convenience store to quickly purchase everything that I needed.  By needed I mean, WANTED!  The things that made me feel like I was in Japan: canned cold coffee, Aquarius, an Asahi tallboy, a “genki drink,” an onigiri and some Japanese cigarettes.  After successfully opening the onigiri without tearing any of the seaweed, I drank from all of these things.  Coffee, followed by a genki drink, then a bit of Aquarius and from there onto the beer.

After relaxing for a few minutes and sending emails, tweets and facebook updates, I headed out and met up with another former JET that just happened to be in Tokyo for business.  Tucked into an izakaya on the 5th floor of a building that we had arbitrarily chosen, after meeting at Ochanomizu station, we started our nomi-houdai (all you can drink) and began reliving our past lives as ALTs.  It has only been a year since I had seen Keith, despite him having left Fukushima 3 years ago.  We met in Denver last year to attend the wedding of former JETs that had lived in Fukushima.  And just like it had been in Denver, it was if we had never parted ways and never had to say goodbye to each other.

That is one of the truly beautiful things about the JET programme, it seems like no matter where you go in the world, there’s someone there that you used to live in Japan with and it’s easy to fall back in to being friends.

As the night grew on and the beer flowed, I realized that the Japanese language is not exactly like riding a bike.  I’d liken it more to that sport you played through high school.  You used to be decent at it and you assume that you still will be, even though it’s been numerous years since you’ve even played.  That amazed feeling, when you realize how horrible you have become at it is exactly how I felt sitting across from Keith, who is Japanese-American, listening to him throw out blazing fast Japanese with ease and finding myself struggling for the words to order a beer.

We parted ways after a few hours of discussions of past JETs and what they’re doing now or where they’re at and just catching up on life.

I went to bed thinking about how I had traveled so far, but that it felt like a strange version of home, where everything was as it always had been, but was just shrouded in a light haze.

Fukushima + Movember = Fukushimo

Dear friends, family, and people of the internet,

Each year, the Fukushima community comes together in November to take part in Movember.  Former and current international residents of Fukushima prefecture, Japan, combine to make Fukushimo.  Chapters are created in different countries all over the world in order to raise awareness of men’s health and funds are directed to Prostate Cancer societies.  This year I have joined our Canadian team in hopes to raise funds and awareness, as well as to grow a ridiculous moustache.  I have shaved the beard that I have been sporting for the last 5 years, to the probable delight of my mother and the dislike of my girlfriend.  To see me, sans beard, is by itself worthy of your money, as I look ridiculous.

Day 1
I ask that you please show your support and donate to our worthy cause.  If donating is beyond your means at this time.  I will allow you to forward this post to at least 5 people as your get out of jail free card.  Please check in on our team and my page from time to time in order to witness the ridiculousness that is grown men competing to grow the most ridiculous moustache.
Thank you,
Brent Stirling
Movember.com – Fukushimo Team (or donate here) (*note, if you are going to donate to the team, please spread it across all members, so we all feel the love)
Here’s our team picture.  Still missing a few members, but it’s a scary sight nonetheless.
Check out this blog post by The Stevolution about Fukushimo as well.  He’s a funny guy.

CBC Radio One – Ottawa Morning Interview

While I continue to procrastinate about writing the blogs detailing my trip back to Fukushima (sidebar: it’s actually less about procrastination and more about the fact that I’ve talked about it so much already with media, friends and family that I’m on a bit of an overload), I figured I’d at least share some of my words in audio format.  Here is my interview with the CBC Radio One show Ottawa Morning.  They were nice enough to send it my way.  I’m pretty sure it’s the best interview I’ve done to date.  Although, I was a little thrown off by the first question.  I didn’t think we were going to dive into Soma that quickly.

Ottawa Morning Interview – Tuesday October 11th – Brent Stirling

Thanks again to Ottawa Morning for having me on.

Image via Wikimedia Commons