Tohoku Earthquake – 5 years later

I had trouble writing this post.  It’s been nearly seven years since I left Miyagi-ken.  I haven’t gone back like I had planned, and now I don’t see my students coming to Southlake because they’ve grown up (also the age range changed).  As evident with the decreased frequency of updates, I’ve become distant with the country that is my second home.

Nevertheless, I can’t forget about how five years ago, I spent all night worrying about my friends when the casual status updates about an earthquake became something much scarier.  It’s hard to not think about the Tohoku earthquake when NPR was all over the 5 year anniversary and all of us Miyagi-ken JETs pay tribute on social media.  I think it’s good to be reminded though, as the people in the region are still struggling.  Thus, I’ve decided to make this post about some examples of aid and recovery.  There’s a lot of individuals out there who continue to dedicate some of their time to Tohoku through raising money or lifting spirits.  Let this be inspiration to all of us.

The one project that led to this post was the 113 Project.  It is a series of short films directed by Wesley Julian, one of my fellow Miyagi JETs who also created Tohoku Tomo.  The 113 Project provides glimpses of rebuilding from youth, local business members, and expats to show the power of collaboration.  To view the films, visit the 113 Project website.
 photo Sake-Urakasumi-TourBrewery-IMG_9130_zpsjbsip6gd.jpg From 113 Project

Visual kei band X Japan has always been active with charity work, having raised money for both the Tohoku earthquake and other disasters.  This year drummer/pianist Yoshiki put up a special drum set for auction.  He donated the proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross.
 photo Ydrum1_zpsgo1iphrf.jpg From Resonance Media

The question of where to send money often crops up with disaster relief.  While I don’t doubt the Red Cross’ valiant efforts, they have received some criticism, at least stateside.   One charity I can recommend 100% is the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund.  Not only does each project provide updates through emails from Global Giving, but the charity is run by the father of Taylor Anderson (who was another Miyagi JET).

Lastly, I wanted to highlight RADWIMPS’ annual tribute as an example of how art heals.  Listening to music that pays tribute to the survivors never fails to bring back emotions I thought I had forgotten.  Seeing images does the same.  With the returning sadness is a message of hope that the artists put into their work.  Tohoku is recovering, and the human spirit will triumph.  Since 2012, RADWIMPS has released a new tribute song on March 11.  Here is a list along with the video of the most recent:
2012 – “Hakujitsu
2013 – “Buriki
2014 – “Kaiko
2015 – “Aitowa
2016 – “Shuntou”

Misogyny in Japan – an ALT’s perspective

When I heard about the incredibly sexist remarks that some members of The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly made towards Ayaka Shiomura, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Almost a year ago, I had read about the women in the Texas Legislature dealing with similar harassment. It was a sobering reminder that underneath Japan’s polite exterior lies the sinister misogyny that plague all of society today.

The news report and a series of posts from This Japanese Life about sexual harassment in Japan got me thinking about the misogyny I encountered as an ALT. Back then I was very oblivious to a lot of problems in society, namely the microaggressions and rape culture. Even though I called myself a feminist, I saw nothing wrong in the victim blaming rhetoric of the JET Handbook that This Japanese Life pointed out. My friends had dealt with worse, but I’ve come to realize that I had some pretty unpleasant encounters.

The creepiest was a guy named Hiro who had accidentally dialed my landline and decided he wanted to chat up this gaijin on the other line. I politely insisted that I didn’t know enough Japanese to tutor him in English. He asked for my cellphone number and then called me a liar when I gave out a random string of numbers. I finally just hung up on him and would do so anytime he called. When I asked an older male friend for help, he just told me to refuse the guy on the basis that I did not know Japanese. He didn’t really understand the anxiety I was feeling. I’ve never really talked about this because I felt stupid for not being more blunt, but you never know how a person is going to take that either.

I do think, however, that there is too much of a focus on being courteous and maintaining wa (social harmony). Following traditions is important when you’re a foreigner, but when the customs reinforce misogyny and you find yourself in physical or emotional danger, you have to fight. It’s something I wish they told us more in our JET orientations.

When it came to smaller things like the way I sat (cross-legged, which is how the men sit), I was very unapologetic about my tomboyish ways. My co-workers knew that I crossplayed and liked motorcycles, and I’ve always kind of wondered if that spared me from being told to help serve tea to male teachers. Of course, it could just be another incident where they had overlooked the gaijin. I also wonder what would have happened if I acted upon my desire to join the soccer club, which only consisted of boys.

Speaking of sports, my junior high school did have a girl on the baseball team. My fellow ALT was concerned about how she was treated, which I didn’t understand until it occurred to me that there could be a lot of bullying. As a far as I knew, she did well in the club. Likewise I had a tomboy sixth grader who stated that she wanted to be a farmer. It was refreshing to hear considering how strongly established gender roles were at such a young age.

The lesson about occupation names was one of the few chances I could instill a bit of feminism into my students. I would always point out that there were female firefighters and male nurses (“doctor” and “nurse” were especially confusing terms). It’s not that small-town Japan doesn’t have female firefighters or doctors, but it’s less common and there’s the flipside of pointing out that there’s nothing shameful in being a male nurse or pastry chef.

I don’t have solutions on how to deal with harassment or sexism, but I do know that the small opportunities like slipping in lessons to combat gender stereotypes will help make a difference. Even though we had to maintain wa, we can still combat misogyny in little ways. I remember a fellow ALT who advised us to insist that we are from a different cultural background in sticking up for ourselves, and sometimes establishing that difference is the key. Trying to figure out when to turn the other cheek or to speak out is not easy. However, we can’t let misogyny in Japan or anywhere else (because sexism Japan is really bad… but America is pretty awful too) bring us down. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and if we focus on that and push the ones we can influence in that direction, the world would be a better place.

Listening to: “Seishun no Matataki” by Ringo Sheena

Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story

Even though I contributed to Kickstarter, I didn’t watch Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story until recently.  I wanted to make sure that I could sit down without any distractions, and I also needed to be in the right mental place.  For those of you who started following this blog after March 2011, I was a 2008 Miyagi JET along with Taylor Anderson who lost her life in the tsunami.  Even though it’s been two and half years and many of my fellow JETs who lived through the disaster have gone back home or moved to another place in Japan, the pain still lingers.


Photo from
JQ Magazine

However, watching Live Your Dream brought some closure.  I didn’t know Taylor that well, but we had a connection as Miyagi JETs and the documentary gave me a chance to learn more about her life, both before JET and while she was in Ishinomaki.  I also got to see different sides of my friends, whom I will always admire for their courage and perseverance, and my heart goes out to them for their loss.  It was heart-wrenching to have to see them and Taylor’s family revisit the sad news.

Sometimes I can be critical of JET and other exchange programs because it’s easy for people to be there for the wrong reasons or, in my case, when they’re not quite ready for the responsibilities.  However, Taylor’s story is one of how two countries can become connected through one individual.  Not only that, she is a role model for anybody who wants to pursue a dream.


a card featuring artwork by Taylor

The film also talks about Monty Dickson, another JET who also died in the tsunami.  He too showed an enthusiasm for teaching, learning, and life that we all should have.  Live Your Dream is inspiring in that way.  It celebrates life, and even though many tears were shed in watching it, I come away with restored faith in humanity and a new optimism.  Thank you to Reggie Life for making this documentary.

To see a trailer and order the film, check out www.taylorandersonstory.com .

Listening to: “Bi-Li-Li Emotion” by Superfly

Staying Connected

One of the hardest things about leaving the JET Program is knowing that it is the end of some of the relationships you’ve formed. You can’t stay in touch with all of your students. Just think about how many elementary school teachers you remember vividly. It’s a bitter truth and something we all fight upon leaving our cities.

I’m lucky in that I have the Sister Cities program to keep me connected with old students. However, this past student visit had me thinking about how much I can do to stay involved. My family didn’t host this year, and thus I questioned how involved I ought to be.  While I really wanted to accompany one of the host families during their weekend excursions, it felt intrusive.  In the end, I wound up only helping my dad with the tour of city as a photographer and attending the farewell party.
DSC_2402

The experience was fun, but my struggles had me wondering where the line is between being proactive and intruding.   When I was a JET, I wasn’t involved with the students as much as I wanted to be so there’s a part of me that wants to make up for it.  I’m the kind of person that wants to stay friends with everyone, but the catch is that I’m not their friend.  I have to remind myself that I was their teacher now that one of my students (the one we hosted last year) friended me on facebook.  Even though I’m friends with some of my old professors, the age difference does matter.  I was a role model back then, and I’m still a role model.  It’s extremely tempting to add some of my old students as friends, but I feel like that’s crossing a line.

There isn’t an easy way to stay connected with those whom you may have touched or not.  I sometimes ask myself how many of my student actually remember me, especially the younger ones who may make their way to my hometown.  There are other ways for me to form meaningful connections through cultural exchange.  The Grassroots Summit was a perfect example.  Even though I was stupid and didn’t get people’s contact info, I still have a lot of good memories to cherish.

I’m sure there are still ways for me to volunteer with our Sister Cities program without hosting a student (something that my parents say that they don’t really have the energy to do).  I have to remind myself that to be able to see my former students recognize me at the airport is enough.

Listening to: “SUMMER PARADISE” by Simple Plan feat. Taka from ONE OK ROCK

Tohoku Tomo

March 11 came and went fairly quietly.  However, no matter how good of day it is or how much fun I had the weekend before, a somber mood takes over as I remember what has been lost to the earthquake and tsunami.  Japan has made remarkable progress in rebuilding, but this isn’t something the country will get over quickly.  Just from talking to survivors during the Grassroots Summit last fall, I got a sense of how much pain is lingering.  I admire their strength, and I will continue to show my support.

With that, I present the Tohoku Tomo Kickstarter.

One of my fellow Miyagi JETs, Wesley Julian, is creating a documentary that highlight the volunteer efforts that has helped the Tohoku region get back on its feet.  The organization he focuses on are all founded by JETs: Save Miyagi, Smile Kids Japan, Volunteer Akita, and JETAA Chicago.  The film will focus on all the different individual efforts and highlight the love of Japan that has driven these people to lend a helping hand.

Please check out the Kickstarter, as well as the official Tohoku Tomo website.

Tohoku Tomo photo 1461d417-c478-4c88-bf5c-6a8f96681cd0_zpsfc85f202.jpg
Listening to: “Ninja ri Bang Bang” by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu