JQ Magazine: JET Alum Returns to Iwate for Tohoku ‘Homecoming’

By Alan Mockridge (UK JET, Iwate-ken, 1992-94) for JQ magazine. Alan was one of 14 JET alums selected for the Tohoku Invitational Program sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Tourism Agency. He is a co-owner of Intralink, which provides business development services for U.S./European companies wishing to do business in/with Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan. Post-JET, he lived in Japan for 13 years before moving to Santa Clara, California in 2008. Intralink employs half a dozen fluent Japanese speaking JET alums in its Tokyo office.

Until a friend at university who I was studying German with suggested we apply for the JET Program as a year out after graduation, I could not even have located Japan on the map. On my application form I answered the question, “Do you have a placement request?” as “Somewhere rural.”

I got my wish. I was placed in Ohtsuchi, a fishing town of less than 15,000 people on Japan’s northeast Pacific coast, where I taught English as an assistant language teacher in three senior high schools: Ohtsuchi, Kamaishi Kita and Yamada. The experience changed my life but although I have remained intimately connected with Japan over the past 17 years, my direct links to these schools have naturally faded over time. That changed in the early hours of March 12, 2011 (PST).

When I saw the first earthquake and tsunami news reports coming out of Iwate my memories came racing back. I realized that I had lost contact with most of the teachers and townsfolk who had befriended me. There had been no e-mail or cell phones when I left in 1994, and gradually my New Year’s cards started to go undelivered from around 2008 as teachers were moved to different posts further and further from the coast. I decided I had to find them all again, just to tell them that I had not forgotten their kindness.

My opportunity to reconnect came when I received an e-mail from the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco on behalf of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Japan Tourism Agency announcing an invitation “homecoming” program for 14 JET Alumni to visit the disaster area in Tohoku to observe recovery and reconstruction efforts and promote regional tourist destinations. Each applicant had to get sponsorship from  their former schools, which was quite a challenge for me as I no longer knew any teachers at my schools. I ended up “cold calling” Ohtsuchi High School and was fortunate enough to be recognized by a science teacher who had been in Yamada during my time there. Against all odds, Ohtsuchi agreed to sponsor my visit and I was accepted onto the program.

My homecoming took place in the last week of September. After an initial briefing at the ministry in Tokyo, I headed north. However, my first rendezvous with three former colleagues now living near Ichinoseki nearly didn’t happen. My Shinkansen left Tokyo only moments before typhoon No.15 caused all further departures to be cancelled due to high winds and heavy rain.

When I woke up the following morning the typhoon had passed over, but it had left a trail of destruction and flooding along the Kitakami River with long stretches of road and acres of paddy fields left submerged. It also impacted my first planned activity: a boat ride through impressive Geibikei-kyo Gorge, which was cancelled due to high water and fast running rapids. Instead, I headed to Japan’s most recent UNESCO World Heritage Sites—Chusonji and Motsuji Temples in Hiraizumi—and then on to a second reunion in the prefectural capital, Morioka, where I met up with teachers from all three of my former schools. They all had their own stories from the disaster, whether donating all their belongings to the families of 13 stricken relatives; volunteering in the immediate aftermath of the disaster; or searching evacuation centers, rubble and, finally, morgues for missing students. One admitted that psychologically they could not yet face returning to the coast.

Teachers’ reunion in Morioka after 17 years (L to R: Furuichi Horoshi, Endo Toshio, Masakatsu Hosokawa, Takeda Yuka, Kudo Lika, Endo Kanako, Alan, Sakai Hiroyuki).

After Morioka, the hardest part of my trip began as I headed due east to the coast at Miyako. First, I visited beautiful Jodogahama Beach where I had spent many blissful summer days and which was now clear of debris again. Then I made the 50km trip south to Kamaishi along coastal Route 45—Tohoku’s equivalent to U.S. Highway 1. The whole way the road followed a landscape of tsunami-devastated towns and villages.

Although I was prepared for the worst I was still shocked at the scale of the damage. Yamada had been burned to the ground after the tsunami; Funakoshi—one of the most beautiful bays along the coast—had been transformed into a central dumping ground for mountains of debris; and Ohtsuchi was an empty wasteland of building foundations. By comparison, Kamaishi looked almost normal because the downtown buildings were made of concrete and, therefore, were still standing even though all the ground floor shop windows had been forced in by the sheer volume of water.

Over the weekend, I wandered Kamaishi and Ohtsuchi. Despite the destruction I began to see the slow signs of recovery and renewal. Kamaishi, a major fishing port, had lost half its fleet, and still had the 97m, 6,000-ton cargo freighter, Asia Symphony, stranded high and dry on the wharf. However, the economic engine of the city, the fish market, was back in business.

As evening fell lights even started to appear in the downtown port area as restaurants and bars reopened. My old haunt, the Town Hall Jazz Bar, was one of those establishments. When the master saw me, he immediately called Sano-san, who hurried over to the bar. Sano-san has been a friend to almost every foreigner who ever set foot in Kamaishi, and has lost his house three times in his 80 years—first, in the last great tsunami of 1933; second, when Kamaishi was bombed in 1945; and third, on that fateful day last March. Despite his age he vowed to reopen his liquor store and is at the forefront of the Omachi downtown reconstruction initiative. (There is a great account of Sano’s story in Bloomberg Businessweek here.)

When I arrived in Ohtsuchi, the autumn festival was in full swing with drums, flutes, omikoshi (carrying of portable shrines) and tora-mae (tiger dancing). Perhaps it was just held as an excuse to escape the stress for a couple of hours, but apparently it was working as everybody was smiling. I dropped by the Lawson convenience store, the only shop in the whole town, and bought some flowers before visiting Kogan-Ji Temple to pay my respects to my Japanese okaasan (mother) who had perished in the tsunami.

On my final day, I visited Ohtsuchi High School. I showed several “video letters” and songs recorded by students of Japanese at my local high schools in California, Los Gatos and Saratoga. The Japanese students thoroughly enjoyed them and promised to respond with a video letter of their own. It would be great if some long-lasting exchange were to come from my trip. One of the teachers said to me before I left that in a strange way the disaster, and associated influx of hundreds of foreigners (military, media, NPOs, etc.), had done more to internationalize Ohtsuchi than anything previously.

A week after my departure from San Francisco I was back at home trying to comprehend what I had experienced and what I should do next. Most of all I asked myself whether my visit had had any value for the people of Iwate. My question was answered by an e-mail from one of the teachers I had met. It read, “It is unbelievable that anything good could have come from this terrible tragedy, but I am so thankful to meet you again. It was as if you had never been away. We have enough money and there is no shortage of supplies, but knowing that we have friends in far away places who are thinking of us is priceless.”

I will continue to do more than just think of our friends in Japan.

Read Alan’s blog of the experience at www.alanmockridge.com.

Alan and Kamaishi Legend Sano-san enjoying a glass of Californian wine at Town Hall Jazz Bar.