JQ Magazine: A JET Alum’s Return to Fukushima Reveals Changes

Amy at Soma, Fukushima, with Mr. Tanji, August 2011.

By Amy Cameron (Fukushima-ken, 1998-2000) for JQ magazine. Amy was one of eight American JET alums selected for the Tohoku Invitational Program sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Tourism Agency.

I will always remember the day back in 1998 that I received my JET ALT assignment. I immediately rushed to a map to see where I would be living. I hadn’t studied Japanese before, so it was hard to pronounce the words: Nihonmatsu-shi, Fukushima-ken. My tongue tripped on the syllables and I laughed. I found the spot on a map, about halfway between Tokyo and Aomori, 35 miles or so from the coast, between some mountains. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live there. As my departure approached, friends and family asked where in Japan I was heading, but no one had ever heard of Fukushima.

Fast forward to the days following March 11, 2011, and suddenly the whole world had heard of Fukushima. Amidst the media overload of earthquake, tsunami, and radiation disaster images, friends and family called and e-mailed me, “Was that where you used to live?” I scrambled to contact friends and coworkers in the region. My former supervisor cried when he heard that I was thinking of him. People in Nihonmatsu were okay, he assured me. The earthquake had not done as much damage as in some other areas, and Nihonmatsu was far enough from the coast that it had not been hit by the tsunami.  Radiation, on the other hand, was a growing concern.

At this time, my heart ached to return to Fukushima to visit the people and land I loved so dearly. I had spent two amazing years there as an ALT, and it had been hard to leave.  Even as news of the disasters began to fade from the headlines, I felt distracted from my life in Boston, part of me emotionally back in Fukushima. When I heard about the Tohoku Invitational Program for JET alums a few months later, I was so excited that I had a hard time sleeping. This was it: a real opportunity to return to my Japanese hometown, much sooner than I had thought would be possible.

I spent the summer communicating with my former supervisor and other friends and colleagues in Japan to iron out my week-long itinerary. I was pretty nervous. My last visit had been over nine years ago. What would it be like to return after all this time? Would I remember Japanese? Would I still be able to find my way around? Would I remember everyone’s names? And then there were all the images from March swirling around in my head. What would it be like to actually see the effects of the disasters firsthand, and to talk to people who had lived through it, and were still in the midst of recovery?

I arrived in Tokyo feeling jetlagged. It was overwhelming to navigate the train and subway systems to find my hotel and later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for an official briefing. I breathed a sigh of relief as I boarded a Shinkansen bound for Tohoku and left the big city behind for the familiar scenes of rice fields, mountains, and country homes.

Finally, I arrived at Nihonmatsu Station where my former supervisor Mr. Tanji, aka my “Japanese Papa,” was waiting for me. We beamed at each other.

I had a flashback to the summer of 1998 when I had first arrived in Fukushima. I remembered standing up and giving my very first jiko shokai, which I had rehearsed on the bus ride up from Tokyo. I remember it feeling very much like some sort of adoption ceremony, and I scanned the room trying to predict who would claim me as my supervisor. I was relieved when Mr. Tanji greeted me with a big smile, and it was the beginning of a long friendship.

Now, in 2011, it suddenly felt as if no time had passed at all. The next five days were a whirlwind of virtually stepping back into my old Japanese life. It was an incredible feeling. I stopped by city hall, and everything looked exactly the same inside, and former coworkers smiled to see me again after all this time. I spent a couple afternoons at the three junior high schools where I had worked, and they too looked exactly the same to me. The same foyers with racks of shoes, kids in the same uniforms with the same hairstyles, and teachers working busily at the same desks in the teachers’ rooms (still few computers!). When I found myself team teaching a couple classes with a JTE I used to work with, it truly felt as if I had stepped into a time warp.

There was more. I stopped by my old karate studio, donned a karategi and joined in on a practice for the first time in almost a decade. I was surprised at how I was still able to follow right along. I attended the regional English speech contest, and actually heard some of the same recitation speeches helping students to practice before. I didn’t even realize that I remembered “Limelight” and “Tom Has to Work on Saturday” until I heard them again. I even had a chance to return to my old apartment, and lo and behold, it too looked almost exactly the same. Much of the furniture had been passed down through generations of ALTs, and my handwriting was still on the washing machine buttons, where I had translated them into English. It is hard to describe the joy and healing I felt to be able to re-experience my Japanese life to such an extent.

And yet, each time I began to fall under the spell of imagining that nothing had changed since my ALT days, I was reminded that many things had indeed irrevocably changed.  There were now three ALTs in Nihonmatsu instead of one, each with a smartphone in hand to help navigate their Japanese lives. The area of town in front of the station had been renovated a few years back, and it took me a while to find the house of some friends who had moved in the process. Shops lining the older section of Main Street, however, were in much rougher shape than I remembered, suffering from years of economic depression like much of rural Japan. And there had been loss over the years, like my karate sensei, who had died of a heart attack in 2001. The dojo felt strangely empty at first without him.

Meanwhile, signs of the March disasters were subtle at first, but undeniable. Here and there, evidence of earthquake damage could be seen: roofs covered in blue tarps over broken tiles, toppled gravestones in cemeteries, and construction crews still working on sections of buildings and roads. What used to be a public sports field in Nihonmatsu was now covered in rows of temporary homes for evacuees from the coast. Town offices from Namie-machi, near the Daiichi nuclear plant, were now officially relocated to Nihonmatsu, and cars with license plates from Fukushima’s coast could be seen all around town. Sunflowers were in full bloom all around, a beautiful sign of new life, but a reminder of the nuclear disaster because they had been planted to absorb radiation.

On a trip to the coast, I saw huge swaths of land wiped out in the city of Soma, with nothing left but foundations and occasional massive piles of smashed cars and other rubble that had been cleaned up. There were large boats scattered in fields, and a striking line of buildings where the tsunami had reached its farthest point, a line between destruction and life. And then there was the drive through a radiation “hot spot,” a ghost town in the mountains outside of Nihonmatsu which had been evacuated. Rice fields were overgrown, shops closed, curtains drawn, the town completely deserted.

Most frightening of all was what could not be seen: radiation. Each day of my visit, people discussed the latest radiation levels, and it was a somber reminder that although it often looked like life as normal, it was anything but. Because Nihonmatsu was downwind of the Daiichi plant in the days of the disaster, it received high levels of radiation. For many days, people were not allowed to leave their homes and instructed to keep all windows closed tightly, and for a long time after that, children were not allowed to play outside. Since then, the top layer of soil on all the sports fields had been replaced.  Schools now had air conditioners so that they could keep the windows closed. And kids were now allowed to play outside, but wore dosimeters around their necks, issued to each child in the region by the Japanese government. The children are to wear them for three months and then send them in to be analyzed. There was an air of uncertainty about the future that hovered everywhere.

Indeed, the future is uncertain for the people of Nihonmatsu, and much of Tohoku. While it was incredible to be able to step back into my old life and reconnect with people, it was very sad to see the struggle that life has become since March.

Earthquakes continue to strike a couple times a week, the economic outlook in the region is extremely grim, and the long-term impact of the radiation is still unknown. And yet, somehow, life in the region goes on. My 76-year-old conversation partner in Nihonmatsu put it this way: “Japanese people have survived so many things. We will survive this, too.  This is what it means to be human.” As I boarded the plane back to Boston at the end of my short visit, I knew that I would return again soon.

For more on Amy’s trip to Fukushima at http://returntofukushima.tumblr.com.