Posted in Uncategorized

My Japan Emergency Stories

A few days ago, I called the police for the first time in Japan. An older gentlemen at the train station didn’t respond to an attendant’s questions. They were simple ones, too.

“Sir,” the attendant asked in Japanese, “do you have 160 yen? If you don’t, you can’t get on the train.”

I could tell the man was in his 70’s, that age where most people assume he’s a typical yoparai oji-san, someone too drunk to really deal with except to send him home or throw him in jail to sleep it off. I watched carefully, alarm bells ringing in my head. Drunk guys love to talk, whether young or old, they try to joke or shout and just in general be annoying.

He wasn’t doing any of that. He kept putting up one arm, but his other arm stayed at his side. He said something nonsensical, something along the lines of, “I’m trying to find the way.” The train attendant didn’t seem amused, and told him curtly the same line again.

I noticed that the older man’s smile was asymmetrical, his right eye wasn’t opened all the way. I stayed out off to the side, because maybe the train attendant will do something. Instead, he just blocked the way, told the man gently and politely to leave.

The old man started shuffling onto the road. I kept my eye on him, noticing a bunch of bad signs. He wasn’t walking properly at all. His left leg was working fine, but his right leg wasn’t mobile at all, he was lugging it with him like a prop stick. All the facts together made me think he’s either having a stroke, or was the victim of a bad one in the past.

People with strokes can have serious mental issues years after, forgetfulness and confusion in the top two. He couldn’t speak well, another symptom. I wanted to be really sure, so I went up to talk to him.

“Hello,” I said in Japanese, “are you alright?”

It took him a long time to respond, “No, I’m not.” His face contorted, but only the left side. His right eye and the right side of his mouth didn’t move in concert with everything else.

“Where do you need to go?” I was perfectly willing to call a taxi for him, get him to a hospital.

He lunged back and forth, teeter-tottering, obviously upset. He said, “Morisaki!”

“Morisaki?” I got closer. He didn’t smell of alcohol at all, just that musty smell of someone who’d been out and about in the heat all day. I checked for Morisaki on maps in my phone. It was an hour away! Way too far to give him a taxi there. It would clean me out.

“Where are you going?!” He suddenly yelled. I stared at him, befuddled.

“Uh, over there,” I pointed towards down the road. My apartment was a good ten, fifteen minute walk down and around.

“I don’t understand!” He shouted, gurgled more like. His face was a grimace, he reached towards me.

I backed up and shook my head. “Sorry, excuse me.” I turned around and started walking away. I didn’t want him to get so distraught in his confusion that he hurt me.

I dialed 110 after I got to a place not far off and safe. The police picked up and immediately asked me if I was in danger.

“Uh, no,” I said in Japanese, “I am a foreigner, so I need English services, please.” [Ano, chotto, watashi wa gaikokujin desu. Soshite, eigo no saabisu ga hoshii desu.]

“Oh! Ok, thank you for calling. Please wait while I get an English speaker on the line.” He said, in a bit of keigo, the formal language I’ve yet to master.

The English translator was fast, “Hello! Please tell your emergency.”

“Hi yes,” I explained the situation with the man, keeping it short and to the point. I finished with, “I believe the old man is having a stroke.”

They asked me a few questions, where he was and where I was. I told them the road and the location he was heading towards. The translator would translate my words into Japanese after every two sentences. The cop on the other end figured out pretty quickly what I was talking about and where he was needed.

In less than five minutes, they were dispatching an officer to the scene. I sighed in relief.

“Thank you so much, ma’am! We appreciate this call.” They told me in English and Japanese. I thanked them for being so fast and cordial, and hung up the phone.

I had to help. I couldn’t just leave him alone. I knew how it felt to need help and be all alone. See, while that was the first time I ever called the police, I have called emergency services before.

 

Two years ago, I was sick as a dog, vomiting and things going wrong the other way too (long story involving problems with my I.B.S.). Over the period of a day, I was constantly sick. By the time the twelve hour mark rolled around, and I was too weak to move out of bed, I called 119.

At the time, I didn’t know that you could request English services. I was not entirely lucid, so I said all of this in Japanese badly, “I need an ambulance. I’m at (AREA) in (THIS CITY) on the second floor. I’m very sick.” [Kyūkyūsha ga hitsuyōdesu. (BASHO) ni (SHI) nikai desu. Watashi wa hontōni byōkidesu.]

The lady understood, told me they were sending an ambulance right away. She stayed with me, asked questions about what building and the color. I gave her the best answers I could, but everything got a bit fuzzy at that point. The ambulance arrived in about seven minutes. I got inside after stumbling down stairs. The ambulance staff set me up on the gurney and took me to a nearby hospital.

I was absolutely distraught, because I’m American. I assumed that ambulances in Japan functioned like in the United States, charging up to $1,000 for a ride. Imagine my relief when I discovered that it was free, and that the whole hospital stay only cost about $300 (45,000 yen). I was shocked and just so grateful.

Some foreigners dislike the emergency services in Japan. Frequently, the complaints come from having to deal with everything in Japanese. I feared that as well. When I got to my hospital, though, one nurse knew conversational level English. Also, other staff members used smartphones or tablets to communicate with me.

The only problem I had was my doctor, as he seemed completely apathetic. He told me my colon was extremely inflamed, he was giving me this medicine, I’d be discharged in a few days. And then he left, and I never saw him again. I stayed for three days and that five minute conversation was all I had as “comforting” from my doctor.

I was worried. Did he actually bother to look at my x-rays? What kind of medicine was he giving me? What were the side effects? Was I going to have problems after this? Would I just end up calling another ambulance later? I had so many questions, but none of the nurses could answer them, because they weren’t my doctor.

I’m not the only one who suffered from this problem, as seen in various news articles and surveys. Generally, foreigners have a hard time with Japanese doctors, men usually who are used to simply throwing down a judgement and not being questioned about it. I ended up turning out fine, but sometimes that is simply not the case, leaving foreigners high and dry without a way to fight for better healthcare.

What I know now, after the fact, is that the American Embassy actually has translators. I could’ve called for one to come and help me, but since I didn’t know about it I just went home to recover. Also, there are also online medical translator volunteers who specialize in helping foreigners. And to have hope for the future, the hospitals in Japan want to have at least one translator per hospital before 2020, but we’ll see how that goes.

Anyways, that helpless and lost feeling was awful. Knowing you’re sick and in pain, but unable to communicate what you need, I understood all of that when I saw the old man. I hope he was treated better by a doctor, I hope the police made sure he got home. I wish someone could’ve been there to help me out when I really needed it. Being alone in Japan is usually fine, but when things go horribly awry it can feel like you’re stuck in a horror movie for a time.

I hope that I’ll never have to call the emergency numbers again, but it helps to be prepared if I have to do it. Eigo no saabisu onegaishimasu are the key words to get an English translator on the phone (the easy way), always remembering 110 for police (警察 keisatsu) but 119 for ambulances (救急車 kyūkyūsha) and firefighters (消防士 shōbō-shi), and having an in person translator service number. I always keep my medical insurance cards on me, too.

As my mom would say, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Definitely words to live by when living alone in a foreign country.


If you liked this post, please like it and share it! Put down in the comments what you want me to write about next. 

Posted in Uncategorized

Flashback Friday: What Happened After Hokkaido | My Secret Breakdown

[Warning: Depression and Suicidal Thoughts]

I’ll start this off by saying that the first year on JET was full of highs, like super highs. I got to travel to places most people only ever saw in travel brochures, and one of those places was Hokkaido. I never imagined I’d end up in those places, and getting to see them was wonderful in ways that I can’t ever explain fully. I traveled with mostly like-minded first year ex-pats, people who also felt the awe of what we were doing. 

What follows is a mostly truthful account about the February of 2012, but I left something out back then because I was too asheamed to talk about it. Even today as I’m writing the post, I feel like I shouldn’t talk about it. Mainly, the words that prevent it is the idea that “it wasn’t that big of a deal.” As if feeling like I did was just a hiccup in an otherwise fine month. 

Depression has become a sort of easier to talk about thing than before, but I still suffer from the words of my old fashioned thinking people back home. Most of the time when I try to explain it, they tell me to just change how I think, “Be positive!” which just makes me always feel worse because I can’t. Not when it gets bad, not when I want to die, but all too often I will get scoffed at and told to just eat something or get over it. 

I think part of the problem is when people meet me and talk to me, I don’t appear like that stereotypical depressed person you’d see on TV or read in books. I am what my therapist back in high school would call “functionally depressed,” as in I don’t need daily medication and I don’t usually need to keep up with a psychologist. Usually being the key word, though. I go out and see friends, I make plans, I travel to distant lands and smile in all the photos, I date on occasion, so it’s hard for people to blend together those preconceived notions of what it means to be depressed and who I am. 

So let’s start with the good stuff, the thing I posted, what I usually do with my “public face.” 

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THRICE DAMNED FLU SEASON, HOKKAIDO, AND VALENTINES DAY

Posted on April 10, 2012 under Working and Living in Japan

February was an exciting month for me. I planned on starting it off with this epic adventure to Hokkaido. I’d been excited about this trip for months. I paid for it in December, and I was all kinds of happy. I was going to be around JET friends I don’t get to see very often, ski and/or snowboard, eat crab, buy a whole bunch of souvenirs, and take too many pictures.

However, a few days before my quest began, my body decided that was the perfect time to catch the flu. I will admit, the first day I was in complete denial. I went to work, struggling the whole way through, but I could claim it was “just a cold.” The next day, I wanted somebody to shoot me in the face, but I still went to work. My teachers were looking at me like I was insane and there were some polite suggestions about taking ninkyuu and going home. However, I forced myself to keep going.

On Friday, I’m fairly certain I was close to dying. My temperature got over 38°C at one point and I vaguely recall thinking I needed to go to the hospital. Instead of doing that, I went to the clinic and waited patiently for the doctor. Sure enough, I tested positive for the flu. He gave me some inhaling medicine I’d never seen before, and told me to drink fluids and rest. When I got home, I wondered how I could possibly turn this around. I did everything I could possibly do. I drank tea like crazy, took a crazy mixture of medicine that also should’ve probably killed me, and slept for about eleven hours.

The next day, I felt bad, but not awful. I figured that was close enough and I got on board with the vacation plan again. I met a couple of friends at the bus station and we headed off to the airport. I slept on the bus and on the airplane so that I could feel less of a zombie by the time we landed in Hokkaido.

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I like to push myself, because sometimes that’s good for me. After all, who doesn’t like to travel? But it’s easy for me to forget that by pushing myself I have a 50/50 shot of brining on a depressive state. I figured that I was going to be just fine, because how could good stress hurt me? I liked all these people, I was going to enjoy the trip, so I’d be fine. I kept telling it to myself all three days of the trip, over and over, ignoring the tightness of my chest and the soft tears I’d cry in the bathroom where no one could see me. 

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I was all kinds of happy when I saw the vast acres of snow. I was surprised to realize how much I had missed the cold, white stuff. I’m not really a big fan, but I guess in my head it’s just not winter if there’s no snow. I took so many pictures of the landscape.


It’s just like the ink paintings!

We went to Niseko, a ski resort. We split into groups and stayed at two cabins that were drowning in snow. It was so cool! Ha, get it? Yeah, I suck at humor. Deal with it.


There were so many bugs. No one warned me that Hokkaido was full of stink bugs, bugs you can’t smash without releasing a foul stench into the air that would’ve lingered forever. Grooooosss!

On arrival day, people went off to go buy stuff at the grocery store. I stayed in reading the Hunger Games (By the way, it was a good read and I recommend it to you all). The next day was spent running around with my friend Jason at various shopping places and discovering an Irish Bar (that I never got to drink in, and I still regret it). I found myself a new pair of boots that are awesome. That night we ate Genghis Khan, a lamb barbeque dish.

We checked out in the morning to move onto Sapporo. I finally got around to skiing. I went ahead and bought two hours with a skiing instructor. It was my first time so I know I wasn’t very good. I fell three times and felt really freakin’ tired by the end of my session. However, my teacher, Gordie, told me that I caught on fast and next time just go. No more instruction needed. I felt proud of myself, but I wonder if he was just being nice.

Giant “One Piece” Sculptures

After my session, it was time to hop on the bus to Sapporo. At Sapporo, I saw the Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival, in English). Basically, it’s a huge event wherein people compete in a snow sculpting competition. These things can be huge!


And fantastic!


It’s a recreation of a temple done as an ice sculpture. They put lights in front and behind to create this effect with the ice.


I can’t remember if this was supposed to be Osaka Castle or the Emperor’s Castle, but I believe it was the later.

I really had a good time. However, by the end of it I was completely prepared to go back to Itako and get away from the snow. I can only take this stuff in small doses.

As luck would have it, the snow followed me home! Itako had its second snowfall for the winter when I got back. I grumbled about it, but I lived. Besides, it was time to work on Valentines Day! February 14th was just around the corner. I bought construction paper, pens, and stamps. I was determined to show my love and make a Valentines Day card for every single student at both of my schools.

By the time I was done with the Valentines Day cards, my hand hurt like hell, but I managed to complete my task. I made OVER 300 of those little things! I have vowed to never, ever pull this stunt ever again. Next time, I will buy them all or do something creative after I printed out the message. My hatred for the sight of red and pink has not wavered since that day.

The kids seemed to like them, but the boys kept shouting over and over again, “Why no choco?!” I explained, “That’s a Japanese tradition and I’m not Japanese.” Of course, that’s not entirely the reason. I kind of bought a lot of chocolates for them at Christmas time and that stuff was expensive. Also, I need special permission to bring in food to class. I just decided this time that I would just do cards, and maybe next year I’ll figure something out with my JTE and principal in advance.

I surprised the teachers at both my schools with small cards and Kit Kats. They seemed to like it, and now at random times I’ll find chocolates on my desk. It makes me so happy!

And that’s pretty much the big events of February. I’ll update again pretty soon.

TTYL!

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As of writing this post, I only ever told one person about how bad I fell into despression after the Hokkaido trip. I fell hard, the whole nine yards of bad: fatigue so deep set I couldn’t get out of bed, crying fits that lasted for hours, followed by numbness, and finally just the demeaning thoughts about myself. Insidious little poisonous thoughts like, “Look at how weak you are. Can’t you just be happy? How can you be so ungrateful about your life? You don’t deserve it. Why don’t you just do everyone favor? You’re so hard to love, you know that, you’re awful. You’re useless, just lie down and die.” 

I spent two or three days holed up in my apartment, not eating much of anything, staying away from social media, usually curled up under my kotatsu waiting for it to pass. I managed to make the Valentines Day cards on the third day, like a robot. It’s ironic in hindsight that I was making all these cards out of love for my students, but all the while hating myself so intensely. I stopped at one point when I wondered if the blade of my scissors were sharp enough to cut skin. Then I put it all away and headed to bed, watched a few bad horror movies to make me forget how screwed up I was for awhile. 

When I returned to work, I just put on my game face and did what needed to be done. But when I finished work, I would just get into bed and stare at a wall, or fall asleep, or watch movies. I didn’t eat much, some snacks and hot chocolate mostly. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone, I don’t even think there was a psychologist or therapist in my town. I heard rumors that people got fired and kicked out of JET for being depressed, so you never talked about it with people at school. I lived in such a small town that everyone knew everyone, so I knew there wasn’t anyone I could safely talk to without it getting back to my employers. 

Then, I felt like I couldn’t reach out to my friends either. How unappreciative would it sound to say something like, “Hey, so my awesome vacation kind of broke me, and I feel shattered, so can I talk about that?” My mother is a great mom, but I didn’t want her to worry about me where she couldn’t reach me. I boxed myself in with all these thoughts, isolated myself, because that’s what depression does: it ruins your ability to make good choices. 

After about two weeks of persistent suicidal and self-harming thoughts, I managed to finally tell one friend from university how I was feeling. She and I had an hours long chat, but looking back I know I downplayed it, made it seem like I was just having a bad time adjusting. She didn’t tell me to suck it up, she just listened, and reminded me that writing can be good confessional material when people weren’t around. I’m glad I talked to her, because it helped. It wasn’t an instant cure, but as time rolled on into March I got to feeling better. 

I still have these moments, but nothing since then has been so intensely hateful towards myself. Sometimes it’s a few days of numbness, sometimes it’s a month of fighting through lethargy, and sometimes it’s just a lingering malice towards how better I should be but I’m not. I’m able to now talk with people, I have a better support network made because if that incident to work through my problems, but no medication. Medication would be something I would love to try out someday when I’m not in such a transitory lifestyle, but for now it’s just me and my people. 

I know there are ex-pats out there doing the same thing I did, keeping their diagnosis a secret and fighting their battles basically on their own. There are others out there suffering, because they don’t see a way to get help. I felt it was important to write this post for them, even if only a few people see it. It’s fine if you’re feeling bad and awful sometimes, humans aren’t built to be purely happy. We’re complex emotional beings, and some of us have chemical imbalances that make emotions harder to regulate than the average person. That doesn’t mean you’re useless, you deserve what you’ve worked hard for, and you’re worthy of the love your family and friends feel for you. I know it’s difficult to remember that sometimes, but try to keep that close when you fall hard like I did. 

Also, there are options available. I discovered TELL Japan not long after that, it’s a wonderful service that helps people find counseling services that work for them, and it’s all English friendly too. As just an easy shortcut, if you’re worried about people in your town or your employer finding out about your diagnosis, pay out of pocket for medical and mental health services in the nearest big city close to you. Most of the time, paying out of pocket isn’t nearly as expensive as America, but for Europeans I’ve heard the charges can seem too high, so get an estimate before you arrange appointments. But finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to the people who love and support you back home. Tell them your problems, not everything has to be perfect just because you’re living somewhere cool and new.

I hope that this helps someone to read, or at the very least helps people realize that depression doesn’t mean people who are just sad all the time. People with depression go on vacation, they go to work, they smile and hand out Valentines Day cards, they push through sickness to make great memories, they live abroad, and all the while they’re dealing with an invisible illness trying to break them down. 

I’m always going to be fighting with depression, even if people don’t see it, and I’m not going to keep it a secret anymore. 

Posted in Travels in Japan

A Dark Arcade: Kawasaki Warehouse

The day started out fun and sunny when Gina and I left the art show. We had just watched a woman have the most stylisticly amazing breakdown via dark comedy and shadow puppet space hippos, so I assumed (as one would in that situation) I had reached peak awesome for my week. Boy howdy, was I wrong.

Gina’s girlfriend had told her about this retro-arcade, which I figured meant sweet Pacman and Galaga. We figured we’d check it out, if it was good we’d spread the word and maybe have friends come see it with us later. I expected to just have a few cool old games, maybe get some nice nostalgic moments, and that’s about it. 

And then I turned the corner. 

This impressive five story structure immediately made me wonder what exactly I was walking into, because even though I was still down to play games, I didnt want to get into a high priced themed thing. We went through the entrance, but no cover charge or bouncers to be found. Instead, I got a very distinct horror movie vibe. Red lighting casted shadows along walls with faux aged posters citing the “dangers” of the warehouse. 

I loved it, as any fan of scary films would. If you like Halloween, amusement haunted houses, this arcade is for you. It’s got the creepy vibe down pat. And the games are retro, which was oddly enough like a nice bonus to the cool atmosphere. 

I got to play a game I hadn’t in years, the Silent Hill Arcade Game , and man was that fun. I hadn’t shot monsters and Pyramid Head with a gun controler in so long. It was the cherry on top of this spooky sundae. 

Racing games were tucked away into dark enclosures, between sets of “food vendors” with plastic dead rats. On the third floor, you could see faux apartment balconies set in dystopia. 

But not everything was creepy, there were older versions of DDR in a more well lit area on the second floor, as well as typical crane games in every Japan game site. The top floor hosted the gambling areana, as well as funnily enough an area to play Pacman and Mrs. Pacman. A little something for everyone, I suppose. 

Eventually we had to leave of course – we lost hours in there somehowand  leaving held a new experience for us. The back exit was through a low tunnel, that led into a radioactive looking moat. I had to step over “stones” to get out. 

I adore little kind of unknown places like Kawasaki Warehouse, places that are so finely detailed to set the mood, and this mood is taking you into Resident Evil territory. If I could have a house like this entertainment venue, I would, it’s that kind of love for me. I also enjoyed that even though we went on a Sunday, the place wasn’t packed, and we could play games pretty quickly after only a short wait maybe once or twice. 

For sure check it out if you’re in the Kawasaki area, it’s only about a ten minute walk from the station. You won’t regret it! 

Posted in YouTube Videos

Catching Up | Vlogs with Friends!

I’ve been busy running around with people lately, which ya know, is important when you live abroad. If you’ve ever been an ex-pat, the daily grind can really get you down, but luckily for me I have some great people around who are super awesome and supportive. A healthy and active social life (or semi-active in my case) is vital if you want to stay sane.

Kei (who has a really cool concert photo site by the way) and I ran off to Harajuku one day for a foodie adventure. We ate at this “Mexican” restaurant, which was pretty alright. But then, we ate MASSIVE COTTON CANDY, and that was the highlight of the day. We also went shopping, because, Harajuku.

That night we also went out to Tokyo Closet Ball, which was recently featured in the Japan Times!  If you didn’t know, Tokyo Closet Ball is a public drag event show that happens every month. The locations sometimes change, but I’ve been going for over a year or so now. It’s always a blast!

I have a few photos from that event. Each night has a different theme, and the theme this time was 60’s, 70’s and 80’s night. Kei performed this awesome set to the tune of Dominion (Mother Russia) by Sisters of Mercy.

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My camera didn’t like that low lighting, though.

And then other friends performed as well, you might know Gina from the Inclusive March we did awhile back. She did a wonderful dance for leaving member Zowie (David Bowie re-imagined).

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God, I love top hats. 

I even got up on stage in the final performance for Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat” which was kind of like my mini-debut on that stage? Everyone involved in those productions are so encouraging, I decided to give it a try. It’s such a great community, and the friends I’ve made through it are unforgettable.

Later on the next weekend, I headed up to Daryle’s Spring Event Party. Daryle is a fantastic cook who dreams of owning his own restaurant one day. He does pop up restaurants that have so far been successful in selling out everything he has made. I went to his place for some delicious Filipino food.

I really admire Daryle, actually, he always puts forth so much effort to bring people together. He makes his food with love (well, and stress, a bit of that) and I think people can tell. I love that he’s kept working on this dream for so long, and within this or next year he’ll make it come to fruition. And when he does, I’ll be his uh, quality assurance manager (i.e. taste tester).

I’m really thankful that I’ve met such amazing friends. I know, I’m a bit repetitive about that, but it’s true. At times I get so wrapped up in my own head, or I get kind of depressed and don’t even realize it, and then I feel isolated even though I’m not at all. It’s great that I’ve got people around me who can grab me out of dark holes (without even knowing they are, half the time) and get me to do new things.

Anyways, basically this whole post is just one big thank you to my Japan and abroad friends. There are others, so many others, I can’t even list them all. From my Japanese friend who takes me to karaoke at least once a month (S, you know who you are), to Emmanuel Transmission whose “real” name will definitely be stolen for my first born, to my high school and university friends who talk to me half a world away, to the co-workers who don’t even know this blog exists, and so on and so on.

You are all amazing, let no one tell you otherwise.


While I was at Daryle’s I discovered that Amaranth, a club in Daikaiyama, is going to feature a documentary called “After Stonewall.” For the price of one drink order, you and your friends can have a fun time next Sunday as well as support LGBTQ+ efforts in Tokyo by going to watch the film. The schedule is as follows:

Date: Sunday, 26 March
Time:
14:30 Opening
15: 00 ~ 17: 00 (Movie Screening)
17: 30 ~ 20: 30 (Savato) Hanging Out and Discussion
21: 00 ~ Amaranth's Usual Order of Business

If you can, please come! I know I’ll definitely be there. The movie will be in English, but Japanese subtitles have been created for the film so everyone can enjoy it.

Posted in flashback friday

Flashback Friday: On March 11th

Last Saturday was the anniversary of the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake. Due to a bunch of various circumstances, I couldn’t get this post out in time, and for that I apologize. March 11th remains a day of mourning, with people in Japan paying their respects to those lost.

I came to Japan a few months after the big quake, and I lived in a rural area highly affected by it. My students, teachers, neighbors, friends, they all remembered that day vividly and told me their stories. When I first came to Japan, I wrote some of them down.

My predecessor, L, told me she was playing outside when it hit, and that no one could move, the entire world was shaking too hard. She had to take a taxi back home, but the roads were cracked open in some areas or completely shifted off to one side, like some surreal dystopian painting come to life.

L went home to find many of her things knocked down, the water off, and electricity unavailable. Even up until the day I moved in, I wasn’t supposed to use the water from the tap to drink or cook with. Instead, I had to bike twenty minutes or so to the nearest grocery store to get a huge tub of water in a plastic container.

In this hard time, the neighbors helped her out, and her friend, A, let her stay for a bit since her house wasn’t as affected as the main area of Itako. People pulled resources together to have meals, shared water when others had none, and kept their sense of community throughout the chaos.

The people in Mito weren’t as lucky in terms of damage. The JETs there relayed tales of broken bridges and roads, completely unusable. Only one or two JETs in the area had running water and electricity. Thankfully, they opened their doors to others, so people crammed into those apartments to take showers and essentially live there until things got back up and running again. If not for them, family members wouldn’t have known they were alive, they might’ve not had meals.

For people with diabetes, it was a nightmare scenario, since insulin requires both a doctor and a pharmacy but neither were available (same went for allergy and asthma problems). Luckily, friends helped out, and sometimes also the supervisors and co-workers. Medicine was found and given to the people who needed it most, even if it took all day to bike to one side of a city and back, people were getting the resources where they needed to go.

But sometimes the supervisors were unsympathetic. One Mito JET spoke about his supervisor harassing him into coming to school. Even though the students didn’t come and many other teachers weren’t there, they expected him to show up (for reasons he never really understood). The issue with the demands wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to go to work (he actually did, his school had electricity and internet access) but he couldn’t get there.

“When the earthquake hit, you know how L showed you the roads? Yeah, imagine the same thing for the trains. My station was busted up real bad.” He told me and picked up his smartphone to show me pictures. On his screen were downed power lines, resting over railroad tracks split in half. “They kept trying to tell me ‘just take a taxi’ or something, but everyone was taking the taxi. It was an impossible thing to ask. They had family and friends, you know? But I just got here! I didn’t know anyone yet.”

japan-motorway-ear_1846733c.jpg
Via the Telegraph | This is the Joban Motorway near Mito, Ibaraki

About six months after living there 2011 rolled over into 2012. People gradually stopped telling the stories, not forgetting everything that happened of course, but everyone was healing. Schools were back in session, work was getting into a rhythm again, so life was getting normalized.

And that’s when I wrote the post below:


A NEW YEAR REFLECTION: 3/11 AND 9/11

It’s a test week, so I’ve been grading papers more than going to class.My students make the normal mistakes for kids their age, and I’ve got to admit I made the same kind of mistakes every so often back in the day.  When one of my Japanese English Teachers came over and gave me a stack of winter break assignments, I just assumed they’d be like all the rest. He told me, “Look for mistakes and correct. If they are right, circle. You know, yes?”

I smiled and nodded my head, “Hai. I know.” I took the papers from his hands. When I plopped them on the desk, they made a nice thunk! I got out my red pen and got comfortable on my rolling chair. As we would say back home, “This is gonna take awhile.”

I opened the stack and started reading. I paused when I realized these weren’t the normal variety of papers. They were essays, and the students were given different things to discuss over the year 2011. Of course, the Great East Japan Earthquake was a topic. Some students wrote about it. They said pretty much the same thing over and over again.

“The East Japan earthquake was on March 11th. I remember that day. I was in school when the earthquake happened. I was very fearful. Many people passed away and died. I will not forget that earthquake.”

I felt my heart break each time a student wrote about it. Some of them had family up near Fukushima and worried about them being so close to the radioactivity. More than one student mentioned the radiation levels getting high, and also about the earthquake damage in Itako. I wanted to find each and every one of them and hug them. Instead, I slash out grammar and spelling mistakes with a red pen. Beside an essay, I put a “Good job! :)” and possibly a comment.

Every time I saw the numbers 3/11, I couldn’t help but get flashbacks to 9/11. I remember that day very well. I could point out exactly where I was when the Twin Towers were attacked. I can remember how the hallways in middle school were full of people panicking. Teachers were talking to each other in hurried voices, trying to decide what to do I guess. I remember a friend running up to tell me, “Something really, really bad just happened. I don’t know what, but parents are coming to pick up their kids.” I remember turning to the science room and the TV was on. I saw something smoking and a tall building. At the time I had no idea, but it was the first tower struck by the airplane.

That memory remains like a deep scar. For the next week, kids at my school talked at the lunch table. Some were even talking about going away on vacation for a bit. We lived next to a uranium enrichment plant, and it was on the hit list of possible targets for terrorism. I remember wondering how long it would take to go up. The answer? I probably wouldn’t even had time to scream. I still have nightmares about that plant blowing up one day.

I remember where I was on 3/11, too. I woke up that night for some reason. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I got on YouTube to watch some movies and relax. I saw the earthquake news an hour after it had happened. I was in denial about it, hoping against hope that the earthquake just did some damage and that was all. I found out at lunch about the tsunami. I cried when I saw the death toll numbers rising every ten minutes. I got on Facebook to message my friends and emailed my host families in Japan. When I left to go on Spring Break, I kept up with the news and watched the nuclear plant problems. When I got the news that everyone I knew was fine, I felt relieved, but the nuclear plant issues put a knot in my stomach. Thankfully, some very brave people saved Japan from yet another disaster.

The radiation remains an ongoing problem, but the recovery efforts will continue as well. Still, many people here won’t btuy foods or products if they have the Fukushima kanji on them. There’s a huge nuclear power distrust among my students. They say, “Abunai desu!” It’s dangerous. I don’t know what to tell them. I do understand how it feels to suddenly realize the danger of the world, that it can change so violently, and the paranoia that it could happen again. I wish I could find the right words to say, but I can’t.

At that moment when I sit at my desk I feel like I should do something. I don’t know what, but something. I feel like a failure, like I haven’t done enough to make things better.

But then I remember how after 9/11 my teachers did their best to keep things normal. We talked about what happened from time to time, but usually we just tried to move on. I can see my students and teachers are trying to move on, too. I can still see the fear students have when a bigger earthquake happens. One student held my hand tightly when a earthquake hit a few months or so ago. I squeezed her hand and said, “Daijoubu desu.” It’s alright. I want to keep doing that. I want to help make everything alright again.

My students are definitely strong and moving forward. They didn’t just reflect on the earthquake. They also talked about the Tokyo Motor Show, the Japan Women’s Soccer Team winning the World Cup, and Arashi winning its various awards (MatsuJun, I love you!). Because of the Japan Women’s Soccer Team, many of my students felt inspired and so proud. They all talked about how the win brought them such joy. Thanks to them, I’ve got quite a few girls talking about being soccer stars when they grow up. I gave them smiley faces on their papers and told them to keep their dreams.

They’re already talking about spring vacation even though that’s quite a ways away. Valentines Day is also just around the corner. A few of my students have asked me if I’m giving away chocolates to a boy. Maybe someday, but not this time.

I hope this next year brings a whole lot of good things. I’m no hero and I know I can’t take the memory of 3/11 away, but I can be here to support my kids. I can’t get it back to the way it was. That’s impossible. Still, I can try to make them feel secure again. The ground can shake all it wants.

I’m not going anywhere.


And I didn’t, for three years I stayed to see my first years turn into third years. I watched them grow until it was time for high school, and from there I could only hope for the best. I stayed long enough to know that I wasn’t needed anymore, and that was a good thing. Maybe a few of my Japanese English teachers would miss me, maybe my friends wouldn’t see me as often anymore, but the school and the students were right back on track.

When people come together-be they friends, teachers, students, co-workers, neighbors- that is how people can get through something devastating. If there is one lesson I can say Japan has taught me it’s that community is important, but then it becomes downright essential after a natural disaster. Being strong for each other, being there for each other, in both good times and bad, that is what makes a community.

As someone who wasn’t there, who only dealt with the aftermath, I can’t proclaim to understand  every single person’s feelings. I know the people of Fukushima still feel wronged by the government for not aiding them like it should, and those who lost people in Miyagi will still be mourning for years to come. Their sense of community might not yet be whole again. Nothing is perfect, but we’re all getting there, one day at a time.

Nowadays, March 11th is a day much like any other historically tragic day. It’s become a fixture of the past, with Japanese people taking a moment to remember, perhaps visit a shrine to pray for those lost, send donations to Fukushima, or simply bow heads in a moment of silence. The news will show pictures and videos, sometimes with a story of a hero/heroine who bravely saved lives or created a new foundation or etc. Schools may remind students what to do in the event of an earthquake. Japan remembers, and so do I.

We’re not going anywhere.


Photo Credit: Featured Image | Daily Mail