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“Hot Spot” Interview With An EFL Teacher — In The Middle Of The Japanese Disaster

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I recently began a new regular interview series. There are always lots of “hot spots” around the world — places where there are natural disasters, political upheavals, etc. And English teachers can be found in most of those places.

Today, English teacher Joanne Sato agreed to answer a few of my questions:

Can you tell us a little about yourself, including how long you’ve taught English and why, where you’re from, and anything else you’d like to share?

I moved to Japan from England in 1998 straight out of university to start work at a huge private English school in Tokyo. The plan was to spend a year here and return to complete a masters degree at a university in the UK and eventually become a university lecturer. The plan changed as I fell in love with the job, Japan and my future husband. We moved to Fukushima city in 2001 and I finally got my masters last September in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I have taught at a local women’s college since we moved to Fukushima and greatly enjoy the lifestyle offered by this lovely city in the north.

Where were you when the earthquake and tsunami struck, what happened, and how did you feel?

On the day of the earthquake we had been practicing for the graduation ceremony all morning, it is a complex affair with each student receiving their graduation diploma directly from the college president. The auditorium is a beautifully designed hall, which seats over 600, and it is a wonderful sight to see the students file in wearing their caps and gowns. Every year it fills me with a great pride that many teacher know, the pride as we watch our students fly into their new lives after each has triumphed over hurdles unique only to them.

After lunch it was time for class photographs in all their graduation finery. I have been in charge of this for the last few years, there were two hundred students, two photographers and myself in the hall. The first group of students were in position up on stage with others lining up awaiting their turn, adjusting stray tendrils of hair, checking make-up, reminiscing amongst themselves. The shaking started.

Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time will know how earthquakes feel. Usually we look up from our cups of tea, grading papers, TV viewing and shrug, “Just an earthquake”. This time it felt very different. The hall seemed to be shifting up and down by feet at a time, our legs gave way, and within a minute I heard a sound I had never heard during an earthquake. It was a scream.

As material began to fall from the stage ceiling we knew we had to get out. The doors were flapping wildly, big heavy sound proofed doors were made to look and act as flimsy as paper. The photographer shouted “get out” and the students held on to each other as they staggered to the doors which I held with all my might. I know my face was white, my heart in my throat, my fear was of losing them all under a roof collapse. I shouted, “it’s okay the building is strong…this way”, not believing any building could be that strong. The last student made it out and I let the door swing shut.

We crouched in the stairwell as the earthquake continued to bounce us around. When the last student rounded the corner to the car park I let out my own big sob on the shoulder of the librarian. “I thought I would lose them” was all I could say.

What were your experiences in the immediate aftermath?

My daughter attends the elementary school across from the college. The building housing the school is much older than the college and before I made it to the car park I ran to the school only to find the children had already left for the after school program. The moment I found her and hugged her in the car park surrounded by students, who had forgotten their own fear in the face of the younger children’s it felt like a scene from a film and I have played it over and over in my mind in the days since. The cars appeared to have elaborate hydraulics rocking them up and down on the spot as the earthquakes came thick and fast.

It started to snow. The trains had stopped, the students were stranded and we made our way into the cafeteria, a one storey building with reinforced pillars. The students’ mobile phones constantly warned of aftershocks and we spend hours running for cover under the tables as the earth shook, rocked and trembled. The mobile phones told us the earthquake had been in Sendai, the next city north, and students desperately tried to contact family in the worst affected areas. At this point we had no idea about the tsunami. Then the news trickled in, a ship lost with one hundred people aboard, houses washed away, many dead. It took days to know the true extent of the damage caused by the wave.

Places where we had camped, surfed, enjoyed oysters next to the warm Pacific ocean, had been obliterated. So many people lost. When a call came from my husband in the early evening I felt truly lucky that he had been working inland. The previous week he had been at Sendai airport. My thoughts are with those who will not get that call or the film-like hug.

What have you learned from the experience, and do you think there are lessons Japan, and all of us, can learn, too?

Two days after the quake we watched in horror as the first explosion occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Our home is located 62 kilometers west of the station and with growing unease we packed a few things and headed west out of the city. Our apartment still did not have water and the constant aftershocks had us all spooked. The British and American governments are advising staying outside of 80 kilometers of the power station. I am ready to go back to my home but will wait a few more days and monitor the radiation levels before returning.

I have an incredible admiration for the workers at the power station trying their best in a difficult situation. They are fighting to make safe the beautiful area I have been lucky enough to call home for ten years. I have learnt that the life we live can be changed in an instance and it is up to us how we deal with the new challenges of a different situation. I know the fishing villages will spring up again and the white beaches will return, time is the great healer. I know there will be a day when I sit outside a small seafront stall enjoying a cold beer in the summer heat while cringing at my husband eating raw sea urchin straight from the spiky shell.

Is there anything you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

My great love and admiration for my adopted country and the people here has grown stronger. The evening of the earthquake I returned to my apartment to assess the damage I found all my neighbors in the entrance hall sharing hot tea. I shared a cup and a high school student offered to accompany me up the ten flights of stairs to help me in case the door was jammed shut. He is usually desperately shy and I saw him come out of himself that night. He watched as I discovered we did not have one glass left intact. I said to him in Japanese, “all we can do is laugh” and we giggled as the hi-tech refrigerator reprimanded us in a robotic voice over and over, “you left the door open…you left the door open…you left the door open”!

Thanks, Joanne! You can stay in touch with Joanne through twitter — @SugarJo

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for asking me to do this Larry. It will be two weeks tomorrow since the quake hit and there are a million stories worse than mine. Please don’t forget those still suffering in the cold weather here in the north of Japan.

  2. Thank you Jo and Larry for this moving interview. I also admire the people of Japan : their delicate humour and love of life in the face of disaster is so well illustrated by your smile in the end.

  3. Thanks, Joanne! I got to hear bits of your story over several days on facebook. It’s even more amazing to see it all in one place together. I’m glad you and yours are safe, and feel heartbroken for the many we are hearing about who were not so lucky.

  4. Enjoyed this very much. Thanks for posting. It’s really interesting to have this personalized with such stories. I’ll be returning to this often.

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  6. Joanne…your story is so moving.I read it several times.I liked yoyr dedication to your job…U are a courageous woman. I liked it when U said to high school student “all we can do is laugh” ..brave heart…Facing tough times with a smile…it is rare…Happy that u are safe..my respect for the people of Japan.
    Hamdi

  7. Great story Joanne. Thanks for sharing it. There’s a chance I’ll be up in Fukushima in September. Hope we get to meet up.
    Cheers!

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