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From Kentucky to Fukushima and Back

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.