Three years ago, I was teaching at Close Elementary (named for it being literally five minutes from my apartment). It was around the end of fifth period, I believe and I couldn’t tell you what I was teaching.
Suddenly the school’s PA system chimed its quick four-note arpeggio. This was rare during class and we all stopped in confusion. The principal’s voice said something that I didn’t understand and, before I knew it, the Homeroom Teacher and I were heading down the hallway toward the staffroom.
As it was my first year in Japan, my level of Japanese was pretty low. I had no idea what was going on as I entered the staffroom but, judging by the looks on teachers’ faces, I could tell it wasn’t good.
Over the next ten minutes, the principal explained something to everyone. Words like ‘Jishin’ and ‘Tohouku’ flew by me and I didn’t understand any of it. The school nurse, seeing my blank stare, asked if I understood what was going on. Thankfully, she spoke great English and filled me in: There had been a big earthquake and tsunami up in northern Japan. Although we were far from Tokyo, my city was put on Tsunami Watch (we were located next to the sea, after all).
I dutifully updated my Facebook status to let my friends and family – in particular my mother – know that I was fine.
After the principal was done with his briefing, he turned a TV on so everyone could monitor the situation. My eyes grew large as I saw an enormous wall of water sweep across an airport runway. Dozens of kanji that I did not understand scrolled below the images that were being displayed. Wow, I thought, this is terrible.
Soon after, my workday ended and I rode home and talked to the other ALTs. None of us really understood what had happened, but we knew that it was an earthquake, a tsunami and it was bad.
That night, a few friends and I rode in to Kumamoto City by train to see a DJ I loved. Upon getting to the club, however, a sign on the door informed us that due to the earthquake, she would not be attending tonight. She was from Tokyo and it appeared that transporation in an out of the metropolis had been ground to a halt. We had not realized just how bad this disaster actually was.
The next day, more and more images and news began to appear on the news. For the first time since I got to Japan, my TV was on and I was glued to the coverage, understanding the images I was seeing more than the words that were being spoken. Tokyo Tower had been bent by the quake, entire towns had been swept off the map, thousands of people were unaccounted for and the Tohoku region was a disaster area. My heart broke.
Kumamoto is over 1,000 kilometers (over 600 miles) away from Tokyo and even farther away from Tohoku. Being so far away from the crisis that was going on yet still in the same country felt very surreal.
As I think is natural for humans, I immediately wanted to go help. I was prepared to train up north and assist in any way that I could. An email from the Prefectural Advisors, however, put a stop to that. They asked that, while difficult, we abstain from going to volunteer. They cited that eager, untrained volunteers could be more of a hindrance than help.
Instead, I donated $600 to the relief fund and continued to watch in horror as the news began to report about the Fukushima nuclear plants. After about a week of this, my friends and I decided to turn off the news and go a day without it. It was starting to drive us mad.
Around this time, my annoying aunt began messaging me on Facebook. It started out innocently enough; she asked if I was alright, I assured her that I was. Then she began asking me if I could go on a radio show that she was doing and ‘talk about my experiences’. Although I repeatedly told her about how far away I was from Tohoku and that I did not experience anything different, she was relentless. I eventually just ignored her. I was furious that she was trying to use me to speak on a tragedy that I had not experienced; just in order for her radio show to have a ‘scoop’.
Even now, I’ll have people ask if I was there during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. When I tell them that I was, I see their eyes widen and they want to hear about my experiences. I am quick to tell them that I was far away and that it did not affect me. It pains me to be able to say this because I know that so many other people in Japan are not able to do so. I have met JETs from Ibaraki and Fukushima and I have the utmost respect and admiration for them. They stayed when things were almost unbearable and for that, they are amazing.
The Tohoku area is rebuilding but even after three years, there is a long way to go. If you are able, please consider a donation to the JET Alumni Association Fundraiser on Globalgiving.org. The website will MATCH whatever you donate.
Thanks for reading my rambling story. I felt like I needed to write about it.