Chuck Harris in Japan

Editor's Note: Chuck Harris ’10, Austin, Texas, graduated with a degree in politics and environmental studies and is teaching children in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). Here he describes the catastrophic 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and the aftershocks that continue to rock his world.

I began work with JET in July 2010 following my graduation from Whitman. I was placed in the Miyagi prefecture, in a rural town called Tome-shi in Miyagi. I am by no means fluent in Japanese, but I had taken three-and-a-half years of Japanese at Whitman as well as studied abroad in Japan for a semester.

I had more-or-less settled into daily life by mid-March when the earthquake hit, while we were taking down decorations from the graduation ceremony. The students had all gone home and just the teachers were left. We had a 7-magnitude earthquake two days before so we anticipated some aftershocks. We were in a spacious gym and as the earthquake’s intensity increased, I grabbed hold of a nearby door panel. Other teachers were throughout the gym and building. I was scared beyond description and worried about my other teachers. The shaking continued for roughly an hour, and I felt like I was constantly in danger.

A bridge near my apartment was destroyed so I was unable to return to my apartment to assess the damage for several days. I was not carrying my cell phone and was consequently unable to contact my own parents or anyone else for nearly a week.

When news came of the radiation leak, I felt as if I could take no more. Necessities, such as food, electricity and water, had still not been restored, and my health was deteriorating. I had no nutrition and had survived for about a week off of processed food and rice balls. I felt very malnourished, and I think lost around 2 to 3 kilograms in one week (around 5 to 6 pounds). I had given my limited supply of nonperishables to the evacuation center. I had started going to the evacuation center less and less after sensing some hostility, mostly because I’m younger, and people there assumed I should evacuate to my family. My other teachers and the vice principal noted my weight loss and ill health, but could offer nothing as far as help goes other than telling me to endure it (ganbare).

After six days, I evacuated to Kyoto to Hina Morioka’s house with another JET worker seeking food, water and a return to some normality. I met Hina when she was an exchange student at Whitman my senior year. I evacuated at first from Sendai, an hour-and-a-half from my town, to Tokyo on a U.S. government bus specifically for foreigners evacuating. The trip took around 16 hours since the government insisted we stay outside of the 100-mile radius from the daiichi Fukushima reactor. From Tokyo I took a bullet train to Kyoto, which took another two to three hours. This was while other modes of transportation from Sendai (airplanes and bullet trains) were either in disrepair or were booked solid for weeks as people left to live with their families.

After six days in Kyoto I returned to my community and school. None of my co-workers or students had been injured, but we had a few new students arrive from areas that flooded from the tsunami. I talked to a few of the students who came from devastated areas and offered my condolences, but I tried to keep the focus on teaching English and moving forward.

I personally have struggled to cope with the earthquake more than anything else in Japan. I also have had to deal with an increasing phenomenon here known as “earthquake illness,” a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, in which I still feel shaking even at times when there is no earthquake. It is usually triggered by certain sounds, places or uneven ground. I also have dealt with a significant sleep loss due to aftershocks at night that have been powerful enough to knock out power or water or do considerable damage to roads.

As far as daily life changes, gas is considerably more expensive, around 30 yen more (50 cents) per liter. Also, I used to encourage my friends to come visit Miyagi, but due to the radiation danger and the damage from the earthquake, I now believe it is too dangerous due to its proximity to the reactor, roughly 58 kilometers or 36 miles from Sendai. I wear a mask to work every day, and I have created an emergency stash of food and water for “next time,” as there is supposed to be another “big one” sometime soon. I now carry my cell phone at work (which I did not do before the earthquake) and have an emergency battery and flashlight. I always keep my gas tank half-full; we lost gas for several weeks last time, although I luckily did not need my car. People were waiting six to 10 hours for gas in my city after it finally returned. I will pass the supplies on to the next JET participant, if I don’t use them, as nobody should be as unprepared as I was for the first earthquake.

I’ve found staying here increasingly difficult to justify in light of my friends from the United States and even my entire family at some point attempting to persuade me to come home.

Thankfully, there have been some positive moments in the darkness surrounding this traumatic event. Whitties who have reached out to me and the children I work with keep me going. Since my arrival, I have always considered (semi-jokingly) Hina and Ayana as my “safety nets” here in Japan. I never dreamed I would actually ask them to help me in the way that they have, and they exceeded my wildest dreams as friends. I was taken aback by their hospitality and generosity in my time of need, and I know I could not have made it through without them. I love them more than anyone else I know in this country for everything they have done for me.

Norico Omoto, the Tekisuijuku interest house native speaker at Whitman from 2009–11, David Abramovitz ’10 and Christine Tamaru ’12 reached out to me, too. My Whitman Japanese professors — (Akira) Takemoto-sensei and (Hitomi) Johnson-sensei — trying to reach me, contacted Norico, who offered to search for me in Miyagi on their behalf. Eventually, Norico was able to reach me by cell phone.

Many other Whitties living in Japan, including Jenn Doane ’09, Bridget Snow ’10 and Nate Conroy ’10, offered to let me evacuate to their areas. From the earthquake itself to my status update that I was OK, at least 70 Whitties tried to contact me via email, Facebook messages, wall posts or simply “likes” on updates and statuses. I also was searched for through a friend’s blog and even received a mention on the Walla Walla Sweets blog (I worked for the Sweets baseball team one summer.) The reaction was overwhelming, people I had not heard from for months or even years were reaching out to me, offering kind words and checking my profile daily for updates.

In spite of my traumatic experience in Japan, I have really enjoyed the JET program and interacting with Japanese children of all ages. I’ve worked with grades from preschool up through junior high school, and the children are what keep me coming back for more. By far the best part of my job has always been the cultural exchange and getting to talk to Japanese kids about the United States or just learning Japanese culture, and it was that enjoyment which made me want to stay in Japan and persevere through everything going on here.

One of my biggest joys was at the beginning of this year when the students introduced themselves to the new teachers and said that even if they do not like English or feel they are “bad” at it, they enjoyed talking to me. It made me feel like they are at least interested in the United States, and there’s a chance I can make English interesting for them. I want to continue on this program as long as I can and stay with it.

Editor’s note: Chuck re-contracted for another year on JET before the earthquake, so he expects to teach in Japan until July 2012.