Fukushima

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.

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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

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.

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.

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Why this is only blog #3.5 – Return to #Tohoku #3.5

Before I left for Japan, I had figured I would have time to write, in and amongst the crazy hectic schedule I created for myself and the drinking and general shenanigans that went along with returning to see friends throughout Fukushima.  I did fall a bit behind but had written a few blogs and took copious notes throughout my trip about how I was feeling and what I was thinking about.  My initial blog about Tokyo was written in a travel blog style, with descriptive paragraphs, metaphors and the like, in order to entice and excite you and I assume after all is said and done it still will be along those lines.  But there was one thing I hadn’t counted on during this short jaunt through the land of the rising sun.  And that one thing was Soma.

So, on my last night in Japan, sitting in my hotel in Tokyo, I’m going to give the reason for my lack of posting up until now, other than an excuse for not blogging blog (see, Return to Tohoku #3).  And this very well may turn into another excuse for not blogging blog, but hey, you’ve read this far and look how much more there is to go!

This past Sunday, I went with a bunch of foreigners to go and volunteer with Hearts for Haragama, a group I’ve blogged about before.  After spending the day with children from different kindergartens in the Soma area, they took me out to the coast.  The JETs that have been out to Soma a few times decided to take me out to Tsukasa’s (the owner of the Haragama kindergarten) house.

As we began to near the wreckage I had my camera going and got Jay to shoot a video with my Xacti.  At first, it was just as I had seen in the news.  Pictures of buses in the water and some buildings.  But as we got closer and closer to the Pacific Ocean, the utter destruction began to take over.  At first I was amazed at how different everything was, giant concrete tetrapods that had lined the coastline were now gone, washed away by the sheer power of the tsunami.  Cars, still lay smashed at the side of the road, in parking lots and beside the shells of buildings that the tsunami left behind.  We couldn’t even return to the beach that I had gone to almost every weekend of every summer for four years because the bridge that would take us up and over the cove that I had always used was no longer safe to drive on. Continue reading

This is busy and hectic – Return to Tohoku #3

I have about half of a blog written for my night in Tokyo and my first impressions coming into Japan.  I just haven’t had time to write the rest of it.  I will start putting out the blogs rapid fire when I have more time, probably starting tomorrow night.  I think I’ll also be on CBC Radio 1 again on Monday morning (EST).  For now, check out some of the pics I’ve shared on Twitter.

Akabeko in Yanaizu

The Aki-Matsuri on Shinmei dori in Aizu

 

Jason Ishida at the GCF

 

Pre-Japan thoughts – Return to Tohoku #2

This is the second post in my Return to Tohoku series.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was nervous while heading to the airport today.  Maybe it came from drinking a little bit more wine then I should have last night with friends.  But nonetheless an anxious nervousness swept over me as I loaded my bag in the car and grew as my girlfriend, dog and I, sped towards theOttawaairport.  Thankfully she talked and I was content to listen while I pet the dog in my lap.

I don’t know where this nervousness came from.  I’ve done this trip what seems like a million times.  Although, now sitting here rocketing above the Earth, north ofYellowknife, I am a little bit more calm and nervousness is slowly building into excitement.  I can’t see sleeping in the 9 hours I still have left, but we’ll see how I’m feeling in 5 or 6.

This trip is different then all others.  It’s not strictly business or travel for pleasure; it’s a mixed bag of everything.  It’s a trip that is a homecoming with business, reunions, government employees and tourist adventures all added in for good measure.  While I don’t expect a ticker-tape parade or anyone to even notice, for me, it will be huge.  Getting off that train inFukushimacity will probably be the best feeling I’ve had in awhile.

The nervousness I’m feeling may stem from my uncertainty.  What am I really going to find?  Is this place that up until a year ago was my home, really that different?  And what is expected of me?  While I understand the overall concept of having former JETs return to Japan, I’m not quite sure what I can do.  What can one person accomplish for a country they don’t live in?  I’m still trying to figure that one out, but in the meantime, I’m just going to write down everything that happens and whatever I do or come across and put it out on the internet. Continue reading

A Rough Guide To My Fukushima Trip – Return to Tohoku #1

Image via Nippon-Jin.com

Really quickly, below is a brief itinerary of my return to Tohoku trip.  I will be blogging all of it under the category of Return To Tohoku.  So, I guess this is the first entry.  I do still have a half-written blog, but given how busy I’ve been this last month and a half, I feel like the next time I’ll get to sit down and finish it all will be when I get on the plane that will take me from Toronto to Tokyo.  Below, I’ve mashed down the 8 page itinerary I created for myself to the bare bones skeleton, just to let people know where I’ll be at.  I’ve also added some links and facts that I honestly ripped right off of the websites sited.  Like I said, I just don’t have time. Continue reading