From Kentucky to Fukushima and Back

by Graham Shelby on March 21, 2011

It’s been nearly twenty years since I first heard about a part of Japan called Fukushima. And when I did, I was thrilled.

I’d just graduated from the University of Kentucky and I got a letter from the office of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. I’d been accepted as an Assistant English Teacher. My assignment: Three Japanese middle schools in rural Fukushima.

I remember saying the name over and over to myself like it was some exotic food I was tasting for the first time. It was hard to imagine that someplace called Foo–koo–SHEE–ma was going to be my new home. I liked it, though. I’d lived in Kentucky my whole life and I felt restless.  I wanted to test myself by going to live in a place and a circumstance different than any I’d ever known.

Fukushima was different in many ways:  Food, language, money, holidays, the way obligation in general, and work in particular dominated people’s lives.  How much drinking people did–and expected me to do.

But over the three years I spent there, I realized that not everything in Fukushima was different from what I’d known. The land around my town was mostly low, pine-covered hills that looked a lot like parts of Kentucky.  The weather and climate were virtually identical.

And while Fukushima has cities, it’s identified as a mostly rural place. There’s even a distinct accent associated with that region of Japan, an accent that urbanites from Tokyo don’t exactly consider a sign of sophistication (sound familiar, y’all?). There’s even a Japanese equivalent to words like hick or bumpkin that people from Fukushima were sensitive to: The word is imo.  It means potato. When one of my Fukushima friends told me that, I laughed and said, “Ore mo imo da.” Well, then I’m a potato, too.

It’s been twelve years and three kids since I left Japan, and I’ve lost touch with most of my friends from there. Or I had until this month. After a flurry of emails, it appears that all my closest friends are okay. Now I’m wondering about the three thousand kids I taught, all of whom would be close to thirty now. Many of them would have moved away. Probably some went to Sendai or elsewhere on the coast. I haven’t found the courage to go through the lists of confirmed and suspected victims to see if I recognize any of their names.

The town where I lived was too far inland to be hit by the tsunami, though a wave of coastal refuges has come through. Still, they’re less than fifty miles from the nuclear reactor, so everyone is nervous. Some people have left. Some people refuse to.

I want to do something, but other than donate a little money, there’s not much to do but hope and worry. I have faith in the people of Fukushima. They’re being tested in ways I can’t even imagine. It was from them that I learned how to live in a place and a circumstance different than any I’d ever known. They will too, if they have to.

After all, we potatoes don’t spoil easily.

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{ 2 comments }

Drew Baucom March 21, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Great piece Graham! Thanks for sharing.

Tonia Hale Goyal March 26, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Loved this! I am also a native Kentuckian and I heard the story on my local NPR station in Seattle. I was an AET in Aichi-ken, Japan, in 1998-99, right after graduating from Centre College. My friends joked about me teaching the Japanese “Hillbilly English.” Still have many wonderful friends there, and fortunately they are all safe.

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