March 11, 2011
It was shortly after lunch on my eighth day of training in Japan, when I suddenly felt dizzy and thought my bowl of ramen was about to make a return appearance. The room honestly felt like it was spinning. Turns out, it wasn’t actually spinning but rather swaying back and forth. I looked around and my eight fellow trainees and trainer had a similar look of confusion on their faces. Ah, yes. It was an earthquake.
I’d heard Japan is pretty seismically active and I was now feeling my first one. Cool? Yeah, a little. I was safe. My new friends in Japan were safe. And once the building had stopped vacillating, we immediately resumed our discussion on managing a classroom of Japanese students who understand little of what I say and vice versa.
After training I sent a quick email to my parents and brother reassuring them that when they woke up and read online that there was an earthquake in Japan, I was ok. My training group then went out for a night of beer and fried deliciousness at a nearby basement izakaya where I had no cell phone reception and had no idea what was becoming of the “little” earthquake I had felt hours ago. I emerged from dinner, checked my new iPhone and found 64 notifications waiting for me on Facebook. Now, I consider myself a pretty active Facebook user with numerous daily notifications, but 64 was a new high. Don’t think I even hit that on my birthday. Something big was happening. All of America awoke to news of an 8.9 earthquake in Japan, and as one of Japan’s newest citizens, I was one of the first people to pop into everyone’s mind. The response was a bit overwhelming. I was grateful for everyone’s concern but the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, though devastating, happened over 500 miles away from me. I knew my experience abroad was about to change, but I had no idea the turn this disaster was about to take.
You see, the seismic activity was a devastating blow to Japan, but in the area of the earthquake was a nuclear plant that was damaged by the quake and began to have trouble cooling itself down. I was and am still no expert on nuclear activity but I started hearing rumors that this could be trouble. Radiation could escape and be potentially dangerous.
The hardest part of all of this for me was that I couldn't wrap my head around what was happening. Was it safe to stay in Japan? I tried to read the reaction of the Japanese people on the street which proved difficult because everyone seemed to remain calm—but there was a tension in the air. Since I was in training, I wasn’t in the classroom yet with Japanese students who I could ask what they were feeling. I was also hearing rumors that the Japanese government wasn’t being completely forthcoming with information which made we weary of any news coming from them. Finally, I met a Japanese teacher who taught English (and coincidentally had lived in Chicago for five years) and she explained to me that what happened is causing problems in Northern Japan, but at that time, I was safe in Osaka. I learned that even though there may have been some radiation that had escaped, the amount I would have to consume for it to cause any damage to me would have been extreme and we experience more radiation with microwaves and cell phones than what was coming from the nuclear plants at that time. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge YouTube fan so it probably shouldn’t surprise you that that is where I finally found the answers I was looking. Nuclear Boy calmed my nerves about the whole situation. Somehow comparing this nuclear disaster to a soiled diaper cleared up my confusion.
During this difficult time in Japan, I was so impressed with America’s response to the situation. Immediately, my home country began collecting funds and sending aid to those in the disaster area. As a Jew and former JUF employee, I was proud to see our community come together and send help to a country in need. There aren’t very many Jews in Japan (I’ll save that for a later post) and to see my community respond was heartwarming. I went to see some live music at my favorite local café and at the end, the musician, noticing that there were some foreigners in the audience, (I had a hard time blending in anywhere) extended his appreciation for the support and aid that foreign countries were sending to his country.
Being in Japan during a time of national tragedy gave me a unique perspective on what was happening in the world. I was able to see the strength and resilience of the Japanese people and see the nation come together to support their peers in the north. One year later, there is still rebuilding to be done, but if there’s one thing I know about the Japanese, it’s that they are hard workers and will persevere to rebuild a stronger Japan.