In my time in Japan, no event has taught me as much about this country and its people as the crisis that began on March 11, 2011. I work as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for English at junior high and elementary schools in Shizuoka City, in Shizuoka Prefecture. I was at school when the first big earthquake hit. Immediately after it occurred, I was glued to my iPhone, sending updates to my friends and family through email, Facebook, and Twitter, verifying my safety and any facts I could gather. Simultaneously, I was scanning the news to try to translate what I was watching and hearing on the television screen in the staff room. But most of all, I was observing the people around me.
I knew right away which teachers probably had some sort of close connection to the areas hit by the earthquake. They were visibly distressed, more so than other teachers. While we were all using our phones to contact loved ones and find out more information, these teachers were also echoing the place names the broadcasters on television were citing, more disbelief than verification in their tone of voice. They were more animated than the other Japanese teachers, running their hands through the hair, crossing and uncrossing their arms as they watched the television, or leaning over their desks, shoulders hunched in anticipation of the news. Their eyes had a look of fear that was impossible to conceal, even as teachers who needed to maintain a sense of calm for the students. In short, they were shocked.
One of the teachers who was reacting this way was an English teacher I’ve been working with for the past six months at this school. A short, slim man in his early thirties who had studied English abroad in San Francisco (my hometown) and had just started a family, he and I had a good chemistry as colleagues. I admired his teaching methods and sympathized at the amount of work he faced on a daily basis at school–especially because he was a homeroom teacher for the third grade students, who, as of March 11, were one week away from graduation. His face had had puffy eyes and dark circles for the past few weeks; I hadn’t really seen his crooked smile too much in that amount of time either. Even with a one year old baby daughter and a progressive perspective on education, the Japanese work life was clearly a dominant presence in his own life.
In the week after the disaster began to unfold, and everyone living in Japan–not to mention the rest of the world–began to deal with the enormity of the situation, I continued to pay close attention to this sensei. We sit in opposite areas of the staff room. Due to the different events that take place for third grade junior high school students this time of year, we hadn’t been in direct contact with each other for some time–and with graduation less than a week away and all the teachers scrambling to finish work, we certainly weren’t going to have any more time to chitchat, much less talk about the more serious situation in the backdrop of our daily lives.
But I could tell that he was dealing with some grave news. The bags underneath his eyes became darker, his eyes puffier. I caught him staring out the window on multiple occasions, a faraway look in his eyes. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes he was having a conversation with another teacher or student–in Japanese, of course–about whatever was on his mind. I wanted so badly to ask him how he was doing, to let him know that I cared. But, unless he was going to make any move to initiate a dialogue about the situation with me, I knew it wasn’t my place to ask. We were colleagues, but given the nature of our work environment and our roles at school, we hadn’t really had the opportunity to become actual friends.
Meanwhile, I was dealing with my own grief and shock regarding the situation. Living by myself with limited language ability in a country I had been calling my home for only a year and a half, I was seeking support from various social networks–other ALTs in my area, friends and family back home, various friends in Shizuoka. After the earthquake hit, I cancelled my travel plans for the spring vacation only to come under immediate fire by family and friends back home for doing so as the situation in Fukushima became more serious. Sonia, just leave. Japan is not safe right now. The Japanese are in denial about the situation. All they care about is work. You have to be concerned about your own safety first. I heard and read those lines in various forms throughout the week between March 11 and graduation day, March 18.
As the days wore on, and more news came out and more loved ones vocalized their opinions regarding what I should do, I began to speculate at every observation–from the Japanese who continued to laugh as they walked down the main roads of Shizuoka to the teachers at my school, who seemed to be more concerned with graduation than anything else. How can they just act like everything is okay? I had a few conversations with teachers about the situation; they admitted their fears and concerns, but after that, it was back to normal. Even the sensei whom I knew was more directly affected by the crisis than the other teachers was maintaining a semblance of normalcy with which I felt was impossible to compete. The more I analyzed the reactions around me, the more my confidence levels with living in Japan mirrored a roller coaster. I wondered if everything I was hearing was true–that even in Shizuoka, I couldn’t count on my safety, that people were too preoccupied with work and responsibilities to admit the truth about what was really going on. I wavered back and forth with my travel decisions and spent more time than I would care to admit keeping up with news and emailing people from my iPhone during downtime at my desk–all while the other teachers were continuing about the day.
On Thursday afternoon, the day before graduation day, though, I realized that everything I was witnessing was not an artificial calmness by any means–it was a strength that I am still struggling to take in, a strength with which I have an admiration I cannot even begin to articulate to full capacity.
We had our last staff meeting of the school year. After some announcements about the next day’s graduation ceremony, the vice-principal lowered his voice and took on a solemn tone. He spoke openly about everything–the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. He verified what my gut had been telling me the entire week–that some teachers have personal connections in those affected areas. He then named the sensei whom I had been observing the entire week.
I glanced at the teacher, whose face conveyed a stoicism that he must have known to prepare for. His eyes were focused on a distance past the shoulders of the principal, who had taken over speaking after the vice-principal. The kocho-sensei had an envelope in his hands and explained to the room that this teacher’s older sister lived in Miyagi Prefecture and was enduring all the tragedies we were hearing and reading about on the news. I then looked at the teachers around me and saw, for the first time all week, how worried they all were. Their eyes had a sullen look. You could tell that their heads were swarming with thoughts–not about work, but of their country. Finally, at this meeting, they were letting their guard down.
But not this teacher. After the principal introduced his sister’s situation, he stood up, looked around the room gravely, and elaborated on her situation. He explained how she and her family were living in shelters. How some of her friends and neighbors didn’t make it. How fuel was scarce, how people were running out of access to basic necessities. How he didn’t know for hours after the earthquake and tsunami hit whether she and her family were alive because all phone lines were down. After he finished speaking, the principal walked over and handed him an envelope of donations. The teacher bowed as he accepted the offer–respectfully, seriously, thankfully.
The next day, graduation day, I watched the sensei guide his students through the most important day of their school life in Japan. Along with a few other male third year homeroom teachers, he wore a white tie with his best suit. He pinned a lavender boutonniere over his left lapel. I watched him walk his students in and out of the gymnasium to the applause of all their families. I listened to him speak the names of every student in his homeroom class from a microphone at the front of the gymnasium; the students called out “Hai!” to the sound of his voice and bowed before the principal in acceptance of their diplomas. I snapped his picture as he walked his students through their final farewell procession outside the school grounds, the first and second year students clapping as they bid their sempais good-bye. I wondered if his mind was as absorbed in his sister’s plight at that moment as I was in his ability to keep walking.
If there is one thing that I have truly learned this past week, it is that everyone deals with disaster differently. The teachers around me — especially this sensei — were not trying to cover up the fact that their country was in the middle of a major disaster, that their loved ones might be suffering. They were doing their best to deal with the situation maturely and calmly, as citizens of Japan and teachers at school. They needed to be good role models for their students, who were mature enough to understand that their country was going through a dire time, but innocent enough in that you want to protect them from your own worries and fears. I couldn’t believe their resilience.
After that staff meeting, and again after the graduation ceremony, I emailed my family and a few friends that I had settled my decision–I wasn’t going to leave the country. I was going to stay in Japan.
This essay was originally published in the e-book “Write For Tohoku,” to aid victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.