by Amy Cameron
In 1997, I studied in Australia with SIT Study Abroad, and I knew it was the beginning of a lifetime of travels. I loved immersing myself in a new culture and learning through experience. After college, I looked for opportunities to live and work overseas, so I applied for The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, which matches native English speakers with public schools in Japan. Soon, I would spend two amazing years of my life on the other side of the world, which led to further involvement with SIT – leading an Experiment in International Living (EIL) trip for high school students to Japan in 2002, and completing my SIT MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) degree from in 2003. My years in Japan were spent in a rural prefecture north of Tokyo, which at the time most people had never heard of, Fukushima.
Fast forward to March 11, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. That morning, I woke to the sound of text message notifications from my cell phone. Kristin, a friend who had also lived in Fukushima, texted “bad earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima!! :’( very bad!!” In the days that followed, I scrambled to contact friends in and around Nihonmatsu City, my Japanese hometown. Manami, a fellow MAT 34 student at SIT now living in Tokyo, helped to contact my former supervisor and “Japanese Papa” Mr. Tanji. He cried on the phone when he heard that I was thinking of him. The earthquake had not destroyed much in Nihonmatsu, he reported, and they were far enough from the epicenter to be safe from the tsunami. However, as events unfolded, it became clear that radiation from the Daiichi nuclear plant on the coast was becoming a danger. For weeks I alternated between being glued to media reports and trying to avoid them altogether because they were so horrifying. I ached to visit. Gradually, the news slowed.
Then in June, the Japanese government announced a special invitational program for former JET participants who had lived in the affected Tohoku region to return for one week. I applied immediately and was accepted.
My return to Fukushima was incredible. On one hand, I had the amazing experience of stepping back into my former life. I visited schools, team-taught once again in the classroom, and participated in karate class. I caught up with old friends, and it was as if time had not passed at all. And yet, there were constant reminders that so much had changed. There were tumbled gravestones and roofs covered in tarps from earthquake damage, rows and rows of temporary housing units set up for evacuees, daily radiation level reports and children wearing dosimeters. On the coast, there were vast stretches with nothing left by the tsunami but foundations, and fields with large boats scattered about. There was a radiation “hot spot” in the mountains, now a deserted ghost town.
The future is still uncertain for the people of Nihonmatsu, and all of Fukushima. Earthquakes still strike a couple times a week, the economic outlook is grim, and the long-term impact of 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.”
Read more about Amy’s return to Fukushima on her blog here.