TAMURA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Bidding family and close friends farewell is never easy, but American Travis Hauan said his parents and girlfriend were “pretty cool” about it — even though he was heading thousands of kilometers away to Fukushima Prefecture amid the ongoing nuclear crisis.
“My parents asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. And I just told them that I am,” the 24-year-old Hauan, who teaches English mainly to junior high school students as an assistant language teacher, told The Japan Times.
One of the schools he teaches at is located about 35 km from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, only 15 km outside the government-designated exclusion zone.
His girlfriend, who resides in Virginia, was naturally anxious and only allowed him to go if he could assure her he would be safe from the radiation leaking from the crippled No. 1 plant.
“I told her, ‘Alright, I’ll do my best,’ ” Hauan said.
A Washington state native, Hauan arrived in Japan in April 2010 after brief teaching stints in India and South Korea.
His interest in Asian culture started when a Japanese student spent time living with his family during a home-stay, and developed further during college through sharing a room with a South Korean student.
What attracted him to Japan’s countryside rather than its big cities was the opportunity to experience local culture firsthand, and that is exactly what he got.
Life in the city of Tamura included a lot of bonding with locals, Hauan said, explaining that on his days off he had plenty of time for shooting hoops with friends and going hiking.
Brushing up on his Japanese skills was a must, as there were not many locals who spoke English.
Watching Hollywood movies dubbed in Japanese, including the Matrix trilogy, proved effective. “Other than renting movies, I visit Koriyama on weekends,” which is about a 25-minute train ride away.
In a nutshell, Tamura was an ideal city to focus on his job as an ALT and experience life in rural Japan.
When the earthquake hit the Tohoku region on March 11, Hauan felt the temblors “getting stronger and stronger.” There were three major quakes that day, he recalled, and then it began to snow.
He ran out of his office just as nursery teachers from a neighboring day care center were hurriedly carrying kids outside under their arms.
Despite having to take refuge outside for more than two hours, the full gravity of the nuclear crisis still wasn’t known.
Hauan spent the following Monday at school cleaning up in the aftermath of the megaquake.
Then the news of the damaged nuclear reactors began to spread the following day.
Hauan also recalled how thousands of evacuees began arriving from the tsunami-ravaged coast, and food started disappearing off the shelves in local supermarkets.
At night, Self-Defense Forces trucks arrived.
“At that point I did ask myself, ‘what is happening?’ ” Hauan said.
Tamura began hiring ALTs about a decade ago, and on March 11 there were 14 working in 28 local elementary and junior high schools.
All of them left Japan within a week of the crisis starting.
“Our employers told us to leave and prepared our tickets,” Hauan said.
While the ALTs were out of the country, the situation in Tamura rapidly deteriorated and some parts in the east, located within 20 km of the nuclear plant, were designated a no-entry zone by the government.
Then, local shiitake were banned after radioactive substances exceeding government standards were detected.
Of the 14 ALTs who left the city, five, including Hauan, decided to return and complete their contracts in Tamura. Three newly hired teachers joined them, bringing the total number of ALTs in the city to eight.
“Honestly, it came down to the people,” Hauan said when asked why he ultimately decided to return May 10.
Besides, he added, he constantly received updates from his Japanese employers about the situation in Fukushima and was aware that things were safer than they were portrayed by some Western media.
Once back in Japan, his life in Tamura more or less returned to normal. But when teaching at a school in nearby Utsushi, he was told to put on a mask and wear long sleeves outside to avoid exposure to radiation.
There was also a memo from school management advising teachers about handling emergencies, including making students spit out any dirt if they tripped and ended up with soil in their mouths.
But other than that, things are back to the way they were before March 11, Hauan said.
Keeping up with the local radiation level is easy, he said, since public announcements are made two to three times a day.
Bans on some local vegetables have been lifted and the only issue with eating is that he doesn’t cook that well, Hauan joked.
Nearby Funehiki Station is usually empty, but that is because there is approximately just one train an hour.
Living in the area is not as difficult as one would expect.
“Some friends are coming over at 11 a.m. and we are going to make pancakes together,” Hauan said of his weekend schedule.
After pancakes they may go bowling and visit Koriyama, he said.
“I enjoy it here, you know. I enjoy the job and the environment,” Hauan said.