One year on: A JET perspective

A year has passed since the March eleventh earthquake. Things are not the same, but a sense of normality is returning to Fukushima, where people have been quietly going about their business and rebuilding their lives.

I used to live in Iitate, a village of about 6500 people. It wasnt a well known place, but now it is famous as the village that was evacuated because of high radiation levels. It is still unclear when we will be able to return. Yet through all the doubt and heartache, the people of Iitate, and everyone in Fukushima, have shown great resilience and determination. They have begun to live a normal life again.

Iitate is not alone in being relocated. The restriction zone around the nuclear plant meant thousands of people were evacuated. Entire towns were moved to different areas of Fukushima. Iitate residents were scattered around several locations. It was especially hard for the older generation to cope with the changes and many occasionally returned to Iitate to spend the night there. Yet over time, they have adjusted and are more settled in their new lives, where they were welcomed with understanding and warmth. To facilitate the change, day to day meetings and activities are scheduled, various workshops are offered and special events are celebrated. So while the old community spirit is still strong, new friendships have been made. A good support network has also been put in place. It offers assistance with buying essentials and help with everyday life. Newsletters are also circulated regularly and the information being shared is much more forthcoming than before. Therefore, people are much better informed about current and ongoing issues.

So what about education in Iitate? Currently, the schools are in temporarily locations, but from August, the students will move to a newly built school. The future is brightening for them: they continue to learn together, can participate in club activities again and are allowed to play outside. Their faces once more carry smiles.

Unsurprisingly, the media continue to show an interest in the nuclear situation. Needless to say, Iitate has received substantial media attention because of its unique situation. Visitors have included a famous Japanese band, a Japanese actor and Tokyo patissiers. Not only does it help to raise the profile of the current situation and offer a realistic view of life now, but also shows that we live with hope. People can see that childrens dreams are once again possible. Iitate has also received many messages of hope and spirit from around the world, bringing smiles and inspiring everyone to keep fighting. The international support also extended to a trip to Germany last summer, where twenty students learned about renewable energy sources. There was also an opportunity to stay in Hawaii as part of initiatives set up by the government in Fukushima. Despite the traumatic experiences many people have been through, new friendships are constantly being made and old connections strengthened.

Changes have naturally occurred in business. As Tohoku is a largely agricultural area of Japan, some of the farmland isnt workable anymore. There is still some stigma attached to food produced here, although it is safe. Despite this, many businesses, restaurants and shops have reopened and attract both old and new customers. I have visited a relocated restaurant from Iitate and it is more popular than ever! They have accepted the situation and have chosen to embrace it.

To promote tourism back to the region, the Japanese government has made travel on the expressways within Tohoku free. Last year, a new shinkansen service also began, connecting Tokyo and northern Tohoku. I hope this will encourage people to come here. It really does have a lot to offer and deserves to be remembered for much more than the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

It is sometimes easy to forget that a year ago life here was devastated. Apart from the radiation readings displayed at government offices, there is little evidence of the nuclear fears that we are all still undoubtedly feeling. Most of the earthquake damage has been repaired. Even on the coast, outside of the evacuation zone, tsunami debris has been slowly removed and areas are starting to look clean. Most houses that were hit by the tsunami have been cleared and the process of rebuilding has begun. Dont get me wrong, there is still more work to be done, but the work of the self defence forces and volunteers has been tireless and the place is unrecognisable to a year ago. They deserve the highest gratitude and respect for their continued hard work and perseverance.

The foreign community has also been active in volunteering throughout the last year. After helping with cleanup, we are continuing to do what we can to assist those in need. We help at specialised childrens days, for the children living in evacuation centres. Even our continued presence here shows the Japanese that they are not in this alone: we are united. The Fukushima JETs have also been selling I love Fukushima t-shirts to raise money for tsunami victims.

It is unbelievable to see how much life has changed in a year and almost impossible to write about all of it. The slow and continual fight of the people to regain a normal life makes me proud to say I am from Fukushima. These people are trying to be positive about the future and I know they will continue to ȴĥä! or fight!

Hannah Sumpter (ALT, Fukushima Prefecture)