On Thursday, I visited Nihonmatsu First and Second Junior High Schools. Once again, I had the incredible feeling that I had stepped into a time capsule and traveled 12 years back in time. The school buildings and grounds looked just the same to me, the students in their school uniforms and other requirements such as hairstyles looked the same, and I saw some of the same teachers with whom I used to work.
1Chu staff room
2Chu staff room (notice the similarities?)
At my first stop, Nihonmatsu First Junior High School (1Chu), I met Kaori Endo. She was a relatively new English teacher when I worked with her at 1Chu in 2000. Since then, she had been transferred twice, and had just been transferred back to 1Chu a few weeks prior to my visit. She was gracious enough to welcome me to two of her classes. In fact, there were three English teachers in the room during my visit. Like many classes in the area this year, Ms. Endo is team-teaching with a relocated teacher from Namie Town.
The principal of 1Chu, me, and Ms. Endo
I never really imagined that after all these years I would be stepping back into the role of ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). It was a bit surreal to go through the still familiar steps of the class – opening greeting, Ms. Endo’s introduction of the lesson, my self-introduction and student questions, and then an assignment in the textbook that students completed and brought to the front for teachers to check. So many memories of teaching in Japan came flooding back, and yet at the same time, it was nice to feel the grounding of more than 12 years of teaching experience since the JET program coming through. I was relaxed and comfortable in front of the class, and truly enjoyed visiting with the students.
The students were in their first year of junior high school, roughly equivalent to 6th grade in the U.S. The school year begins in April in Japan, but due to all the turmoil of the March, the teachers did not switch classes and/or schools as they usually do at that time, and instead waited until August. Ms. Endo was still getting to know her students.
I introduced myself in slow, careful English. The students haven’t studied English for long, so they could only understand bits and pieces, but Ms. Endo helped them with comprehension. When I said that I lived in Japan from 1998-2000, one of the students exclaimed in Japanese, “That’s when we were born!!” So much for the time capsule. :)
The second class - they had just finished gym class the period before
The students were invited to ask me questions, and they ranged from asking me how many hamburgers I eat a day (many students seemed convinced that this is the foundation of the American diet!) and what kinds of cars are popular in the U.S. (wrong person to ask about this!), to what American people think of Fukushima and whether or not American people buy food from Fukushima now. As they listened wide-eyed to my answers, I was so sad to confirm for them that Fukushima truly is infamous now. Before March 11, hardly anyone I knew had a clue where Fukushima was. I would tell people that I once lived in Japan, they would ask where I lived, and I would have to say something like “Fukushima Prefecture, it’s a rural area about 150 miles north of Tokyo.” Now the name Fukushima is enough, and people cringe, repeat “Fukushima??” and look at me searchingly for more information about whether or not I was connected to the areas of the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation.
At one point, I asked the students if they had anything they wanted to share about their experiences from March. The one thing that stood out was that many students were dearly disappointed that they missed their elementary school graduation. The ceremonies were scheduled for soon after March 11 but were cancelled due to the circumstances. Instead, teachers went to each home to deliver the diplomas.
Here is an article about this year’s school graduations in the region: Graduations held at evacuation centers
Next, I visited 2Chu. While 1Chu is in the center of town and has an urban feel to it, 2Chu is out in the rice fields and the smallest of the three Nihonmatsu junior high schools. When I lived in Nihonmatsu, I always loved the view of the fields on my walk from the bus stop to 2Chu. Sometimes if I was lucky, I would see the shinkansen (bullet train) zooming over the bridge in the distance.
Nowadays, 2Chu is smaller than ever. Instead of three classes per grade, there are now only two. When I asked why the school population has shrunk, I was told that people are having fewer children these days. I also know that rural depopulation has been affecting the area in recent decades, as young people leave country life in favor of city living.
Here is an article from 2004 on this issue: Rural life’s slow death
Former music teacher friend of mine who is now 2Chu’s assistant principal, the principal of 2Chu, myself, Mr. Nakayama a current English teacher, and Mr. Tanji
At 2Chu, I visit with Mr. Abe, a former English teacher I worked with who is now a special ed teacher. While most of the people I have met on this trip do not look like they have aged much since I was last here, Mr. Abe is an exception. He looks very tired. When I visit with him, he tells me that it has been a challenging season for him, as he has just changed schools again and is adjusting to his new assignment. Besides that, his family is from Soma.
Soma – the tsunami stricken town on the coast that I had visited the day before. He tells me about how he drove to Soma on the day of the earthquake as soon as he heard about the tsunami to check on his relatives. Luckily, his mother was fine. An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, Mr. Abe told me emotionally that she was surprised when he appeared at her door, asked what he was doing there, and had he eaten supper yet? His mother is now living in central Fukushima with one of Mr. Abe’s brothers. Unfortunately, his two elderly aunts were not as lucky. Both perished in the tsunami. His uncles and cousins survived, but they are now homeless. Meanwhile, Mr. Abe’s daughter, a high school student, had just returned from spending the summer with an aunt in a prefecture up north. They sent her there to be safe from radiation.
I tried to imagine how hard it must be for Mr. Abe to be going through all of this, and at the same time having to keep up with teaching, and a new semester at a new school… I was so wrapped up in our conversation that unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to take a photo with him before he had to rush off to class. Below is a photo of him taken in 2002. My heart goes out to him and his family.
Finally, one of the current English teachers at 2Chu, Mr. Nakayama, gave me a little tour around the school building. Again, it looked exactly the same to me as it had in 2000. Mr. Nakayama pointed out some changes, however. Like a crack in the wall of the school gym and a pulley system of supports holding the balcony up, after damage from the earthquake.
In the school courtyard, I noticed sunflowers. I had seen sunflowers all around town and commented that they were so beautiful. Then I learned that the sunflowers had been planted to absorb radiation, and that’s why I saw them all around town. So beautiful, and yet a constant reminder of the reality of Nihonmatsu’s fears.
This is an excellent article about the state of things in Fukushima 6 months after 3/11, including a good explanation of the use of sunflowers: Fukushima disaster: it’s not over yet
And an article about the uncertainty facing young people in the region: Youths of Fukushima wonder whether to stay or leave