JQ Magazine: Staying On—JETs in Fukushima Share Their Stories

Sunrise over Iwaki: A local pre-dawn commemorative service took place on March 8, 2014, which included taiko performances and ended with the sunrise over the Pacific. (Alexandrea "Xan" Wetherall)

Sunrise over Iwaki: A local pre-dawn commemorative service took place on March 8, 2014, which included taiko performances and ended with the sunrise over the beach near Shinmaikohama Park. (Alexandrea “Xan” Wetherall)

By Eden Law (Fukushima-ken, 2010-11) for JQ magazine. Eden lived and worked in the core city of Iwaki on JET, and he is a current committee member of JETAA NSW, based in Sydney, Australia.  

Introduction

It’s been three years since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. While the rest of the world, and arguably, the rest of Japan, has moved on, communities all along the east and north coast continue to endure and deal with the continuing legacy and consequences of that event, especially those displaced from the exclusion zone around TEPCO’s Daiichi plant.

The JET Programme continues to operate, with the government previously announcing plans to double the number of participants over three years. JETs continue to live and work in Tohoku, including JETs who were there before the earthquake, joined later by those placed after 2011. This article will examine the experiences and viewpoints of JETs who continue to work and live in Tohoku, in particular, those living in Iwaki, Fukushima, a city just past the southern edge of the nuclear exclusion zone. Three years on, they will relate what they’ve seen and observed in their neighbourhood and the city. In addition, the viewpoints of two local Japanese residents will also be included, one from a retired member of a suburb in which evacuees have been housed; and a Japanese English teacher and mother of two.

Before the earthquake, Iwaki was one of the biggest rural cities in Fukushima, with a thriving fishing and farming industry, popular with tourists who come for its natural beauty and well-known beaches. A region rich in history from the Nara period (and prehistory, with its own dinosaur and fossil museums), it also has a famous theme park called the Spa Resort Hawaiians (made famous by the 2006 award-winning film Hula Girls) as well as the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium. A mere 2.5 hours away from Tokyo by express train, it also supports a large JET community, ideal for those wanting to experience a rural pace with easy access to the bright lights of Tokyo. As a JET placement, it was arguably one of the best places to be.

Among the 30-something local JET community were Lisa Chenier (from Kanata, Ontario, Canada, current ALT from 2010) and Alexandrea “Xan” Wetherall (from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, current ALT from 2010), as well as former ALT John Auyeung (from Sydney, NSW, Australia, placed in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima, 2008-2010. John moved to Iwaki soon after JET to take up a private teaching role).

March 11 and Evacuation

It would have been a typical working day for JETs on the Friday of March 11, 2011. For those working in junior high schools, it was also graduation day. Lisa was home that day dealing with a back injury: “I had gone to physio on March 11th but had, fortunately, returned home before the earthquake occurred,” she recalls. “However, I was home alone at the time of the earthquake and that was really frightening.”

After the earthquake, Lisa was stranded in her apartment located in the Izumi, in southern Iwaki, unable to move easily and therefore procure supplies for herself, relying on friends to bring food and drinking water (by that time the water supply had been turned off), as well as water from the nearby river to flush the toilet.

“On the following Monday, the Iwaki Board of Education sent a taxi to take me to Taira [central Iwaki],” Lisa continues. “All the Iwaki ALTs who hadn’t left yet were staying together at one ALT’s apartment. Once the city ran out of gasoline and the stores were running out of food, we decided it would be best to go somewhere else. I ended up going back to Canada, where my family could take care of me until my back was strong again.”

Xan, who was living in Ueda at the time (further south than Lisa), continued going to school until the 14th, out of a sense of concern and responsibility for her elementary school and staff members, until explosions at the Daiichi plant and the threat of another tsunami convinced her and a few other ALTs in the area to evacuate. She eventually made her way to Kobe, staying with friends for two weeks before returning on April 2. Coming home, she described being awestruck by the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami. The seawall close by, she says, was “completely obliterated” by the tsunami. Even her bicycle, which was sent for repairs at a local shop just before the disaster, was gone, “probably crushed beneath the huge sign that fell on the shop itself.”

For Akiko Takenaka-sensei, things were much more serious. She was teaching in Hisanohama Junior High School, located in the coastal part of Hisanohama (in northern Iwaki). The tsunami destroyed much of the town, and what was not washed away was then devastated by a raging fire that she says burned unchecked for “three days and nights.” Approximately 2,000 people came to Takenaka-sensei’s school for shelter, and according to her the entire student body of 70 individuals “worked as volunteers. They cooked, delivered blankets, and so on. They dedicated themselves to the volunteer works under unsanitary conditions due to no water supplies.” On March 13, Hisanohama’s mayor made the call for evacuation out of the area, and the entire surviving population made its way south, either by car or by council-provided bus, joining the human migration that would see many settled in temporary housing, scattered around Iwaki.

Coming Back to Work

When Iwaki’s board of education announced April 11 as the official date of the re-commencement of work, most of the city’s ALTs came back from wherever they had been (it should be noted that ALTs were given a choice, with no penalty, of forfeiting on their contract). For many, the decision to return was not, by any means, popular. As Lisa puts it, “I had neighbours coming to my door with printouts about the dangers of radiation and news about the nuclear reactor in Fukushima. I had arguments with friends and family members. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to go back to Japan—back to Fukushima—after what had happened.”

In the end, it was her mother’s support that proved invaluable: “She told anyone who asked her how she could let me go back that I was an adult and that it was my life and choice to make,” Lisa explains. “If it turned out to be a mistake, then it was my mistake to make. I’m thankful for all the people who did support me in my decision to go back.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Xan’s parents: “Mum said, ‘You’re an adult, and if this is your decision, then we will respect it,’” she says.

For many, the first few weeks at school were mostly cleanup duty. “There was always something to clean up–we continued to have minor, and sometimes not so minor, aftershocks and earthquakes,” Xan continues. “And it would always created a mess each time. Cabinets would fall over, glass would break, and we would have to clean up all over again.” The first day of the students’ return to school was a happy occasion. “It was amazing—there were a lot of happy reunions. I even had one female student came right out and told me she loved me!” laughed Xan. “Coming back to school was something the students really needed—it meant that some sort of normal routine was back.”

But there were a lot of adjustments to make, not just for the ALTs, but for everyone involved in the education system. For Takenaka-sensei, her school now had to share space with another school, a situation that many students and staff had to face. Living all over Iwaki, some students of Hisanohama JHS had to travel long distances, which cut into their study and after school club activities, affecting their grades and their morale. Anger mounted at perceived local government inaction and lack of support. In May, a PTA meeting of the collective elementary and junior high schools of Hisanohama was held as a protest. Most of the parents complained to the assembled school principals about the radiation issue, the start date for school (it was too early), the effect on their children’s education and school life, and so on. It was claimed that the Iwaki Board of Education sent no representative to the meeting. In no small measure should credit be given to teachers, whose dedication and hard work got the students through the year. “As a last-ditch measure, the length of classes was reduced from 50 minutes to 45 minutes. Instead, we increased six classes per day to seven classes per day. We managed to teach our students all of the content of lessons,” says Takenaka-sensei. “As a result, all the third graders could pass the entrance exam for high school.”

For the ALTs, the school roster was drastically changed, and they would often find themselves having to work in fairly difficult conditions—and in addition, also having to move house. In her second year of teaching, Lisa found herself moved to Yotsukura in northern Iwaki, about 36 kilometers south of the Daiichi Nuclear Plant, while also teaching some grades from Yotsukura JHS (they were all scattered in different schools).

“The junior high school classes were set up in whatever space was available,” she explains. “I taught English classes in the science labs, previously unused classrooms, and even in the library.” At another school, even after January 2012, “the gym was still under repair and the school had no running water. Students and teachers had to go outside to go to the bathroom. It was cold. Sometimes the toilets were full and could no longer be used until someone came to empty them. Sometimes they didn’t come for days…it felt like we had been forgotten.”

Other concerns became part of everyday school life. As John relates, “Initially there were obviously a lot of concerns about the students’ well-being in regards to the increased radiation. Outdoor playtime was cancelled and then kept to a maximum 30 minutes per day, a figure which we still adhere to for convenience’s sake. Outdoor activities and events were changed accordingly: growing and harvesting vegetables was cancelled, excursions were changed to indoor venues or to places outside the prefecture, and the annual sports carnival was held in a local school hall.”

However, except for the growing and harvesting of vegetables, things have reverted back to their former routine, which John says is “a direct of the result of the radiation levels being clearly lower than just after the disaster,” although he wryly notes, “we have something else to worry about: the air pollution…. That has again affected how and when we do things outdoors. I guess if we’re worrying about that instead of a supposed radiation threat, then it means some things are improving.”

When asked about the schoolchildren and how they were affected, Lisa says, “Lunchtime was difficult… The elementary school students were getting hot, delicious-smelling school lunches prepared by one of the few remaining lunch centres. The junior high school students were getting pre-packaged meals that sometimes barely seemed edible. The kids weren’t happy, and it showed in their lack of smiles. It was as if everyone had a dark raincloud hanging over their heads. There was no laughter, tempers were short, and kids would fight.”

Xan observed the way her elementary school students dealt with loss and tragedy: “The kids just seem surprisingly dismissive of the horrifying things they experienced—they talk about deaths in their family very matter-of-factly,” she says. “I think the younger kids don’t fully understand what has happened. But the older children, they’re different….Even though they’re open about the subject, they’re still very guarded about their real state of mind. They may start to make jokes, but quickly, they get really quiet.”

New City, New Issues

The influx of so many evacuees will cause some inevitable issues. Kazuo Watanabe, a sprightly retiree from the suburb of Chuodai in south Iwaki, notes that “23,000 victims of the nuclear disaster and tsunami have relocated to Iwaki City….The vast majority of the victims have been settled together with their respective communities and are living in temporary housing. Local council offices and schools of the towns and villages have also been opened, close to the temporary housing.”

The housing density has dramatically shot up, bringing with it problems and issues: “Before the earthquake, vacant land for residential use was in abundance around Chuodai-Higashi Primary School,” he explains. “However, there is no longer any vacant land due to the construction of temporary housing and private homes. In the Chuodai-kashima district, temporary housing has been constructed for approximately 1,000 families, and approximately 2,000 people are currently living there. Due to the rapid increase of people, the volume of traffic around the housing areas and the number of shoppers has also increased. Don Quijote [a discount chain store] on Saturday and Sunday is especially crowded.”

The local economy has been severely affected as well: “Farmers and fishermen are facing extreme hardship as a result of losing their livelihoods. I believe that restoration and revival will take at least another 50 or even hundreds of years, however no one really knows how long it will take….Many of the vegetables cultivated in Iwaki City and local seafood contain slight amounts of radiation. For this reason, drinking water, rice, vegetables and fish are all tested for safety by the Japanese government or the producer’s association prior to being sold to the public.”

Iwaki has also become one of the main staging areas for cleanup crews on their way to and back from the beleaguered power plant, with rumours of their negative impact on the locals. John cautions against putting too much stock into unverified gossip: “There has been an influx of workers. I’m not sure what impact they have had,” he says. “There has been a housing shortage which both these workers and refugees are somewhat responsible for.” However, he notes, “A lot of business also has come since these workers and evacuees have to live their normal lives.”

Fighting Back — “Revival” and “Iwaki Ganbappe!” (ßGanbatte in Tohoku-ben)

In addition to their normal ALT duties, JETs rallied to do volunteering work—helping to clear out destroyed homes, working at volunteering stations (where food and other supplies are sorted), and at evacuee centres where many residents were still living. Xan notes that the spirit of reconstruction went into “overdrive”: “‘Don’t forget Iwaki’” seems to be the motto.” By that, Xan means that the things Iwaki was once known for is gone, and now “we are famous for the wrong things.” What was inspiring, she says, is the “tenacity of the people. There are lots of new restaurants and shops opening—the revivalist nature of the locals here is very inspiring.”

Lisa notes, “Since the earthquake, 16 new houses have been built around my apartment building and people are moving in. The town is much more crowded now, which I notice most at the grocery store as the lines are longer than before. The broken buildings have all been torn down and the areas cleaned up. There is still a lot to be done, and the nuclear power plant is still a concern, but things are finally starting to look better.”

An interest in alternative energy has spurred an unexpected new focus. John explains, “Where I live, I have noticed a lot of new houses or businesses installing solar panels on their roofs. After the disaster there was a big campaign to reduce energy use to help ease the burden on the weakened electrical grid. I guess the increase in solar power use is an extension, and a more long-term action towards relying on the power plants. If there are any good things to come out of the disaster involving the Fukushima nuclear power plants, then this must be one: a change towards using renewable energy.”

It is this drive that is the reason many JETs stay. As Xan tells it, “My original plan was to stay for three years, but I found that I like the people and the area….When times are tough, it’s the perfect opportunity to grow and prove yourself, to put your money where your mouth is and give back to the community that has done so much for you…I stay on so that I can do more, to do what I can to help out. This is my way.”

For Lisa, “It’s been almost three years since the earthquake, and the atmospheres at these schools have improved a lot. The students are much happier now, smiling and laughing often and talking about the future. It’s very good to see!….I have about a year and a half left in Iwaki, and just as my students are preparing for their futures, I am also preparing for mine. Taking what I have learned from living and teaching in Japan, I plan to go to grad school and continue to improve my Japanese and become a translator…I hope to come back to Japan many more times and see for myself just how amazing Tohoku will become in the future!”

The nuclear issue in Fukushima will not be going away soon. The events of March 11, 2011 has left a devastating and lasting mark on Japan, and in the consciousness of the world, with all its positive and negative connotations. While the experiences outlined in this article are undoubtedly daunting and full of hardship and difficulties, there is also a unique experience that is regarded as life-changing in the most positive way for many JETs, motivating them to stay on and contribute to their local communities. Whether you believe that such an attitude is courageous or foolish, what cannot be denied is the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction for those who stayed on.

JETAA chapters around the world are teaming up with GlobalGiving to support programs for students in communities recovering from 3.11 via the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund. Give any time, and your donation is doubled if you give in the 24-hour period that starts when the clock strikes midnight in Japan on March 11, 2014. Support your local chapter in your country and join in with their local fundraising efforts. For more details, click here.

For more JET-related stories and relief efforts from the Great East Japan Earthquake, click here.