Hanamaki is a rural city of about 115,000 in Iwate Prefecture. Having taught here for two years, I began March with the firm belief that this is always the most difficult month for an ALT. Not only are there end-of-year farewells at school, but there are also farewells to foreign teacher friends going home forever. These farewells are particularly difficult, having grown out of that powerful bond that is teaching in Japan.
We were already in a fragile state before the events of March 11. But those of us in Tohoku are a tenacious and stubborn lot. Not without a certain degree of pride will you hear locals express how, had this happened anywhere else in Japan, things would have turned out much worse. Immediately after the quake, while people in Tokyo would hear about how it was snowing and think how terrible it must be for those on the coast without power, the people on the coast were thinking, “‘What luck, a way to get fresh water!”
While it is true that Japanese houses, even with electricity, are not known for their heat-retention abilities, there was also a sense of relief that the quake came during a mid-afternoon in late winter, when kids were still at school, the snow had already melted, and no smells would linger for long.
Hanamaki is 68 kilometers from the coast, well out of range of the tsunami. With Sendai airport flooded and shinkansen (bullet train) services suspended by track damage, Hanamaki Airport, usually desolate on the best of days, became a central hub for the region. Flights to Haneda began less than a week after the quake. Helicopters could be heard coming and going throughout the day, accompanied by the drone of giant cargo and passenger planes, while SDF tents and trucks parked along the runway tarmac.
Nearly one month after the quake, most goods and services had returned to the city. There was a small interruption when, on the night of April 7, we lost power again after a large aftershock, and the next morning lines of people formed at grocery stores, drugstores, and gas stations. Luckily, power was returned in less than 24 hours, and the lines disappeared the following day.
Walking the streets of Hanamaki during the day in late April, it is easy to think that everything has returned to normal. Shinkansen services are still down, but will likely resume soon. Water, milk and gasoline are all readily available. Even store lights are back to their standard eye-melting levels, while the same old dreadful muzak plays in Ito Yokado and YellowHat department stores. At lunch time, restaurants are full of friends, couples and coworkers enjoying camaraderie and the beginning of spring. Most stores are operating at regular hours again, so as the sun goes down, convenience stores light up like beacons of hope sprinkled across the darkened countryside. This is a welcome change, as driving when they were pitch black was an eerie experience.
And yet, for all of the appearances of normalcy, there are visible scars. At night there remains a vague feeling of anxiety, and a belief that it is best to stay at home with family, despite all the brave faces put up during the day. When I call my closest Japanese friends with the hope of meeting up for some friendly support, they explain that they do not want to go out, that it is better to stay at home with family. I try to explain that I do not have that option, but to no avail. My family is not here. I stayed in Japan.
My friendships with foreign teachers, whether they chose to stay in Japan or not, have strengthened as we latch on to each other for support, while the ties with my closest Japanese friends have begun to weaken. The hardest part of life these days has been trying to stem loneliness and the depression that it brings. There are, of course, people who have it a lot worse. It feels good to be teaching again.
And yet, if this mentality of hiding inside continues, it will only make an already financially-depressed area more financially depressed. Two early May spring festivals in the cities of Esashi and Mizusawa were recently cancelled with no official reason given. It is not hard to imagine a reason, but if school graduation ceremonies can continue on the coast despite everything they have lost, I question the cancellation at a time when Tohoku needs tourism most.
Visiting an Italian restaurant in Kitakami one recent Friday night, a foreign friend and I were surprised and dismayed to find ourselves the sole patrons. The owner, a young Italian man who has lived in Kitakami for three years, told us that this is how it has been most every night. Customers will come for lunch, but rarely for dinner.
One of the teachers from the coast noted that, while spending time inland, he felt a strong sense of helplessness in the air. I can understand his sentiment. In March, after asking about volunteer opportunities, I was told only to donate money. I felt amused and bemused to find that I shared the same feelings of helplessness that my friends in Tokyo were experiencing 500 kilometers away. We want to help but are unsure how, are flat-out rejected, or get bogged down by the terrible things that have happened around us. Ultimately, we end up missing the bigger picture: That life must go on; that despair is too easy a trap to fall into.
This teacher was looking forward to returning to the coast, where he felt a strong sense of hope and purpose. On the coast, all efforts go toward reconstruction in the belief that things will get better in time.
Now, at the end of April, the cherry trees are beginning to bloom in Hanamaki. It is a timely reminder that nature, at the very least, will continue unabated. It’s a fitting model for us all to aspire to as we look toward the future. Life will go on, and we honor that best by keeping calm, carrying on and helping out as we can.