It was early 2007 when I decided that I wanted a tattoo to mark my time in Fukushima. It wasn’t until June, 2010 that I actually went ahead and got one though. It took that long for me to figure out exactly what I wanted. But from very early on I knew that it would definitely center around the Fukushima prefectural symbol. I wanted images that would symbolize my struggle to get there and the person I had become through my time in Fukushima. Because of this I chose a carp or koi and a dragon, based on the Chinese legend of The Dragon Gate. I remembered reading it in university in one of my many Japanese history classes and it seemed appropriate, overcoming adversity and gaining power from it. Many legends came to Japan from China, but this one isn’t that well known to Japanese people, at least the ones I asked, but the meanings of the carp and dragon are essentially the same in both cultures. The 福 (fuku) kanji meaning, prosperity, good fortune or happiness, seemed appropriate given the fact that I lived in Fukushima city, in Fukushima prefecture. The colours I chose based on my own family crest that my brother and I have in the same place and got at the same time only weeks before I left for Japan.
While all of these choices were very personal and every detail was scrutinized and thought over, all of these things symbolize not only my personal journey but the people that I met along the way. Living in Fukushima for four years allowed me to meet some of the most amazing people I have ever come across in my entire life. The people I met in Fukushima were the ones that made my time there so enjoyable and so enlightening. Fukushima allowed me to get close to these people and form bonds with them that I know will never be broken. Even years after seeing each other, I can still get together with people from Fukushima and it’s as if nothing has changed and a day hasn’t gone by.
Fukushima has stayed with those who left before me and it will stay with those who leave after me, but everyone’s love for Fukushima still continues on to this day as anyone who has paid attention to the recent events there can easily see. The amazing people who still reside in Fukushima paired with those who left even long before I arrived have all pulled together to help and this has made me proud to have once called Fukushima my home.
Around 3 years ago, a then first year ALT, Christian B-Cote, began talking about a mythical website and company sickteam.com. Don’t bother typing it into your browser, it doesn’t exist. But that didn’t deter Christian, he talked about how all the people in Fukushima from different academic backgrounds and countries had skills and that if we put them together the things we could accomplish would be astronomical. After that, there were t-shirts made and every event in Fukushima city was sponsored by none other than sickteam.com the non-existent organization.
The problem for sickteam.com was that it didn’t have a product, a cause or an organizational structure. Through the last month, sickteam.com, unbeknownst to all of those involved has risen into a full fledged organization. No one is in charge and everyone is learning as they go, but the spirit of sickteam.com has moved people tied to Fukushima to do all they can.
After the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, those associated with Fukushima took action. People in Aizu opened their homes to those fleeing the east coast. They quickly became organized, getting gas and supplies and sharing everything with each other. Teams of people came together to go back into the areas that had been abandoned to get other ALTs and JETs who were stranded. One foreigner, Ben Griffiths and his Japanese friend even drove from Koriyama to Shinchi, north of Soma on the coast, to retrieve an ALT that was stranded there.
A week or two after the earthquake, some foreigners had returned to their home countries or left for other countries within Asia, while others had stayed. With this, sickteam.com went global.
Those who stayed began volunteering in shelters in their local areas at schools that had become shelters.
Danny and Janine in Aizu-Wakamatsu via Darren Gubbins - March 19th
Bringing games and clothes for Evacuees in Aizu via Janine Al-Aseer - March 19th
Board games with Rich Estey, Brian Campbell and Danny Murty via Janine Al-Aseer
Galileo spent the entirety of the crisis in Ishikawa-machi helping out at shelters and was even interviewed by local news via Galileo Yuseco
Ryan McDonald and Henare Akurangi in Koriyama via Ryan McDonald
These are only a few of the images that came out of the first few weeks after the earthquake.
For the people of Fukushima that returned home, getting the spotlight on what was going on in Japan and how much help they needed became of paramount importance. While they had escaped Japan, most that I talked to didn’t feel a sense of relief in getting home and only an urge to go back and help. Many used the need to help to fuel fundraising events and worked to raise funds and awareness. About two weeks after the earthquake I talked to Jason Ishida about fundraising and event planning. We both had to admit we knew very little about how to do either, but that that didn’t matter. Jay led the way, doing fundraising events pretty much everyday he was in Toronto. Starting with a talk at the Mississauga convention center. This fundraiser featured the stories of Jason Ishida, Betsy Anderson, Eric Chan and Anisa Zoubeiri, who all spoke very humbly of their own experiences.
Jay featured in quite a few news stories but instead of talking about his own experience, he always directed the media back to the people that were there and how they needed help. One of Jay’s videos made it onto the BBC and he was always pointing out how calm and collected the situation was even before he left Japan.
Even those that were not the focal part of a story, were still home supporting Japan. At the University of California, Riverside, a story about the relief efforts springing up around campus features none other than Brian Olumba showing support in the photos at the bottom.
The Fukushima JET Alumni throughout the world began to have charity events of their own. Doug Tassin and Daniel Morales, both former Fukushima JETs and also co-presidents of the New Orleans JET Alumni Association were definitely at the forefront of fundraising. At last check, they’ve raised over $100,000 for the relief effort. Former Iwaki CIR Majon Williamson set up a charity that donates directly to Iwaki city in Australia and has raised over $10,000.
Back in Fukushima, groups have become more organized since the quake and have ventured into the decimated region of Soma with supplies and aid. Dane Cunningham and Octavio Castro were two of the first people I saw head to coast via Facebook.
Octavio serving lunch via Dane Cunningham - posted March 25
Vinnie Burns, Billy McMichael, Kevin Hsieh, Sayaka Gammon, Haruka Watanabe and Darren Gubbins also trekked into Soma in an attempt to help, while there they met Tsukasa who ran a kindergarten. After giving them a guided tour of the destruction, the group decided to start a charity, named Hearts for Haragama, in hopes of aiding their new friend in re-opening his kindergarten. To my knowledge, a lot like my conversation with Jason Ishida, none of these people really know how to start a charity or what to do with it, but everyone is learning at a rapid pace and doing a pretty good job if I do say so myself. Recently the kindergarten had it’s opening day but still needs a lot of help.
Click the image to view the entire gallery of opening day
As other people have returned they’ve joined in to help the Hearts for Haragama charity and many have begun helping in the Soma area.
The people, charities, events and actions all listed above are only a small slice of what Fukushima means to me and what the people who are tied to Fukushima have done. But sickteam.com, while a non-existent entity, has definitely found it’s calling and while everyone associated with Fukushima helps in their own way, we are all a part of the same thing. Even if unsure of what we’re doing or how to do it, everyone is trying to make sense of the disaster and return life in Fukushima to what it once was.