Many foreign teachers have decided to stay in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas worst hit by the catastrophic March 11 earthquake and tsunami, despite adversities wrought by the disaster and worried families back home urging their immediate return amid radiation fears.
For some, a strong sense of attachment to their adopted communities outweighs the difficulties.
”It is overwhelming, mentally and physically to stay here but I want to stay,” said Katherine Sheu, 25, from Los Angeles, who has taught English at five elementary and junior high schools in the devastated city of Ishinomaki for the past three years.
There were around 70 assistant English language teachers in Miyagi Prefecture under the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, sponsored by the central and local governments, and a third of them have decided to stay there. Sheu is one of them.
”I wouldn’t cut off relations for no reason. I know I am just one person from a foreign country but if I just left, for me it would be like escaping. I believe me being here contributes, giving them hope and cheerfulness,” she said.
When the quake and ensuing tsunami hit Ishinomaki on March 11, she was having lunch with her colleagues at the Hebita Junior High School, which eventually was turned into an evacuation center. Since then, she has been busy helping out evacuees by distributing relief goods to them together with her fellow teachers.
”I love it here. I have many connections with my students, the teachers and the neighbors. I wouldn’t just leave,” Sheu said.
Having developed a keen interest in Japan while studying for a semester at a college in Sapporo, Sheu had been touched by the way her neighbors in Ishinomaki welcomed her.
At a time when she was sick, they had checked on her and come to her aid.
”Just the way people cared about me and worried about me made me feel good. It changed everything.” Some gave her strawberries and tomatoes from their farms. ”You will never get that in Los Angeles.”
The destruction from the earthquake and ensuing tsunami was felt most severely in coastal cities of northeastern Japan. The disaster also resulted in the death of an American teacher Taylor Anderson, 24, in Ishinomaki. Gas and electricity are still cut and stores are out of supplies
Despite the harsh conditions, the English teachers have reassured their families back home, calmly telling them that they are safe despite the radiation fears.
”I call my parents every day, otherwise they will go crazy. They want me to come home and always tell me the nuclear stuff got worse. When Japanese people start to panic, I think I will panic,” Sheu said.
At the evacuation center where she does volunteer work, her students are also there helping the evacuees. As their teacher, Sheu tries to give them courage.
”The students try to talk to me in English and it makes the atmosphere lighter and helps people relax a little bit and laugh. It makes a big difference in this situation,” Sheu said.
Observing the tidiness and the diligence of the quake-affected people, she is convinced that Miyagi will recover from the earthquake.
”Japan is very efficient and people collaborate to work together. The recovery should be really fast. People aren’t robbing the stores and breaking into houses and stealing money and food. We are all in pain and thinking we’ve got to get through this together.”
Edward Clemons, 25, from Chicago, is another English teacher who has fallen in love with Miyagi while taking part in the JET program, which was launched in 1987 to improve Japanese students’ foreign language skills and to promote intercultural exchanges.
He is in his second year of teaching conversational classes for adults and school students in Kesennuma, another Miyagi city severely damaged by the disaster.
”Even though I heard about the radiation I didn’t think it was a problem,” Clemons said. ”I wanted to stay till things calmed down and I also wanted to help out. I would feel really bad if I left.”
”I was actually enjoying the time spending time with the teachers by talking and bonding, doing all kinds of work like giving out water. I didn’t want to leave. Even though my parents were worried, I knew I was okay.”
When he was studying at Konan University in Kobe, Clemons did not know where Kesennuma or Miyagi were, but he has since developed a strong bond with his adopted community.
”They would invite me to so many events. I carried the omikoshi shrine twice and participated in the traditional dance,” at the local festivals, he said. ”I did so many things with the local community.”
Canadian Daniel Villeneuve, a Miyagi prefectural advisor for the assistant language teachers, said, ”Everyone is so strongly tied to their community that even though things are this bad, nobody wants to leave. For the JET program, the main goal is grassroots internationalization in communities and we are seeing them,” following the quake.
However, the organizers of the JET program worry that it may be affected due to the scale of the quake and the tsunami, as well as radiation leaks at a quake-crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, south of Miyagi.
”I want more JETs to come and interact with the locals in the future but due to the current situation, I cannot welcome them open-handedly,” said Kazuyuki Hoshi, assistant director at the international affairs section at the Miyagi prefectural government. ”I hope life gets back to normal as soon as possible.
This article originally appeared in our sister site, Japan Today.
Photo credit: Mullenkedheim / Flickr