Sent to Sendai: Reflections of an ALT after the Tohoku Earthquake

On March 11, 2011, I had no idea that I would be moving to Sendai, Japan in less than half a year. When the earthquake happened at 2:46PM in Japan, it was 12:46AM in Washington, D.C. and I was asleep.  I was woken up the morning of the 11th by a text from a friend, “There was a major earthquake in Japan. Is your sister OK?” As I struggled to comprehend this message, a shock went threw me and I was instantly awake, online and looking for information. My sister, Rachel, was a JET teaching English in Akita prefecture. I checked my e-mail first, and was relieved to see a hastily written message from her cell phone:

“just wanted tolet you knowthat i am alright. we have no power and the eartquake was pretty big bt kanako sensei came over and brought candles and a flash light. i invited her to stay the night because she has no water. it is nice having company because it is really dark and cold. please contact my phone because i can only access the interneton it. love you guys!”

After forwarding her message to family and friends and calling our parents, I decided to also post a comment about Rachel being safe on Facebook. It was then that I started to understand just how bad this earthquake had been. I know a lot of people who are connected to Japan. They were all posting comments. I saw quite a few, “I`m safe!” messages and I also learned about the damaged nuclear power plants in Fukushima from Facebook. I proceeded to check major papers online, (Washington Post, New York Times) and then I decided to go in to work.

At that time, I was working as a diplomatic assistant in the Economic Section at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C. so I knew that work would be the best place to go to get accurate updated information. I immediately felt the tension when I walked into the Embassy. It was silent except for the hum of NHK news on all of the TVs showing footage of the disasters. The devastating footage I saw on TV was my first glimpse of my current home even though I did not know I would be moving to Sendai then.

Many diplomats must have been working all night and most were still in meetings. Whenever I saw anyone, the exchange that followed was always, “Is your family OK? Are your friends OK?” Everyone had a connection in one of the affected areas. Some of our former co-workers had recently returned to Japan, a few to Sendai and other areas that were the most affected. It was an incredibly sad day.

The Embassy took a few days to organize our response. Eventually, I was one of the assistants given the task of fielding all the calls flooding in from American citizens about the triple disaster. This included calls about offers of aid, the nuclear crisis and even a few conspiracy theorists. The majority of calls were from people who wanted to offer aid. People wanted to give monetary donations, clothing donations and space in their homes to Japanese families. A lot of people wanted to volunteer in Japan, or they just wanted to send letters of encouragement and solidarity to affected people. Quite a few local schools made thousands of paper cranes and delivered them to the Embassy. The walls of our lobby were covered in paper cranes.

President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to come to the Embassy of Japan in DC on March 17th. He made an unannounced visit to sign the condolence book and to show that America would stand by Japan. Following the President, many other high level US officials came to show their support.

In the first few weeks after March 11th accurate, clear information, especially in regards to the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, was hard to find. The nuclear crisis in Japan created a mass media fueled panic about nuclear energy, specifically radiation levels and fears of nuclear fallout. In the media, the ongoing human crisis was taking a back seat to fear of the nuclear situation. There were many reports of the mass exodus of foreigners from Japan and many nations issued dire advisories against travel to Japan.

My younger sister and I had been planning to visit my sister Rachel in Akita ever since she moved there a year ago. We had tickets to fly out on March 18, 2011. At first, I was desperate to keep my travel plans. I wanted to see Rachel more than ever even though I knew she was safe. There was no major structural damage in her area, but they continued to operate under “setsuden” or “power saving” rules which included many planned blackouts and limited use of electricity at night. Fresh foods such as bread, milk, eggs etc. were hard to find. Transportation routes around Northern Japan were greatly affected and regular deliveries of many goods were postponed.

My parents wanted Rachel to come home. They were worried about the nuclear crisis, food shortages and the aftershocks. Mostly, they just wanted to be able to see her and hug her. I think that it was this way with many families of foreigners living in Japan, especially if they were students or young adults on a teaching exchange. After asking all of my friends and co-workers at the Embassy for advice, I finally made the difficult decision to reschedule my plans. Many airlines issued travel vouchers to those canceling their flights and I was able to reschedule my trip for the end of May.

So, how did I come to live in Sendai after such a great disaster? In October 2010, I had applied to be a participant in the 2011-2012 JET Program. On the application they allow you to select 3 top location requests. Number one on my list was Sendai City, Japan. At the time, I wanted to live in Sendai because it seemed like a nice place to live. Sendai’s nickname is “Mori no miyako” or the “City of Trees” and I thought the Tohoku climate would be great for me. It was also close to my sister even though it was in a different prefecture. If you are familiar with JET, then you know that it is rare to get a placement that you requested. There is no guarantee that you will get one of your top 3 and most locations are in the country in places that people have never even heard of.

After the earthquake, I thought that they would cancel the JET program in Miyagi Prefecture. I had just recently had my interview on February 25th and I had also kept the fact that I was applying to myself. Only a few good friends knew. My parents did not even know. After the earthquake, I had to tell them that there was a pretty good chance that I would have the opportunity to move to Japan in August. I broke down in tears when I told them that my top choice had been Sendai.

On April 19th, I found out that I had been accepted to the JET program, but the placement results were delayed due to the disaster. I visited Rachel in Akita at the end of May and it was great to see her. I met up with a few friends as well who related their earthquake experiences. One of my friends was stranded at her office and had to walk for hours to get back to her apartment since none of the trains in Tokyo were running. I spent a few days in Tokyo and most of the structural damage I saw was in Ueno Park. It was not heavily damaged, but many areas were under construction and blocked off to the public. Then, a few weeks after returning from my trip, on June 16th, I received my placement notice. It was Sendai City.

I was shocked. I had really convinced myself that JET was not going to send anyone to Sendai. I was very happy, although a little concerned, with my placement. I saw it primarily as a sign of recovery and also as a way to show support from the international community. I knew I was going to say yes, even though I had some doubts, as did my family and friends. After I accepted my placement, I received the following information on July 2 about my school:

You have been placed at Tago junior high school which is not too far from the tsunami affected zone. Your predecessor broke her contract soon after the earthquake in her first year in Sendai, but is happy for you to contact her in regards to the school. It is a special placement in that there will be students at the school who may have lost their homes or members of their community.

My school (B) Tago and the next closest middle school (A) Takasago which was flooded in the tsunami.

I immediately started researching my school. This is a map of the tsunami affected zone. This is a map of my school and the next closest school, Takasago Junior High School, which was flooded in the tsunami. After a few hectic weeks stateside and many conversations about radiation, aftershocks etc., I arrived in Sendai on August 3, 2011 after spending a few days in Tokyo for orientation. The new Sendai City ALTs came to Sendai via shinkansen (bullet train). Sendai Station was beautifully decked out with Tanabata decorations and the streets were crowded. It was a regular hot and sticky Japanese summer day and we were all tired. Some buildings near the station, like LOFT, still had some visible earthquake damage, but overall it did not look like this was the site of a major disaster.

My first days at Tago JHS were August 4th and 5th. The teachers were very welcoming and happy to see me. They also told me a lot about the earthquake. The teachers at Tago were setting the stage in the gym for graduation when it happened. Many of the teachers at Tago lived in the school for several days. Almost every cabinet in the staff room fell over and broke. Now there are earthquake latches in place on the doors and they are firmly mounted to the walls. On my tour of the school, when we reached the science room, they told me about the how the large fish tank had fallen and shattered, killing all the fish and stinking for days until they could clean it up.

They had to use the school’s emergency food rations, which they were happy to have, but by all accounts were pretty darn tasteless and consisted mostly of instant rice and crackers. One of my JTE`s (Japanese Teacher of English) saved all of the newspapers from the day of the earthquake and the following weeks. The first few were very thin and just had big pictures of the disaster with very little information.

I was really surprised that almost all of the teachers wanted to talk to me about it. They spoke unreservedly and I also had several conversations like the following:

Teacher: What`s your favorite food?

Danielle: Well, I love strawberries.

Teacher: Really? There are farms around here that have the best strawberries.

Danielle:  Oh, really?

Teacher: Yes. They offer tours where you can go and pick them and eat as many as you can pick in a certain amount of time.

Danielle: That sounds wonderful! I would love to do it.

Teacher: You can`t. They were all washed away in the tsunami. We don`t have fresh strawberries right now. Also we have to worry about radiation.

Danielle: Oh…. I`m sorry.

The water didn`t get to Tago JHS but it did come into parts of the surrounding community. My school is right by the Nanakita river and the wave came up it. I was driven around the neighborhood and shown where the water did come in. It was a pretty real awakening to the extent of the damage.

Our first weekend in Sendai was the Tanabata festival, which was beautiful. Our first full week of living in Sendai was taken up by Sendai JET orientation. One of the main focuses of orientation was earthquake/disaster awareness. We all took turns experiencing a shindo 6 earthquake in an earthquake simulator van and we also heard first-hand accounts of the earthquake from the ALT’s who experienced it. It was hard to listen to and I could not imagine what it must have been like to experience it. Some ALTs were crying as they remembered it. Almost all of the ALT’s were at school when it happened. This is a summation of the experiences of the Sendai City JETs.

It was a beautiful sunny day in March and many ALTs wore lighter coats than usual. In the afternoon, many were preparing for graduation ceremonies in the gym. Then the shaking began and got increasingly worse and worse. Some people just stood around in shock while others tried to get outside into open ground. Students’ reactions were completely mixed. Some were crying and screaming, some were laughing hysterically, some were just frozen, and in one notable story a student ran from teacher to teacher with a textbook asking questions about its contents. At one point the ground felt like it dropped out from underneath their feet and almost everyone fell over. All of them said that it felt like the end of the world and that it seemed to go on forever. Immediately after the earthquake it started snowing and the temperature plummeted. Shortly after that the sky grew pitch black adding to the feeling that it truly was the end of days.

Everyone tried to contact loved ones via cell phone but the network was overloaded. It was almost impossible to get in touch with anyone. Most people stayed at their schools and helped to get the kids home. All public transportation was stopped. Gas and water were shut off for weeks afterward.

One Sendai City ALT was affected by the tsunami. She was the ALT at Takasago during the earthquake told us about her experience that night. The school was flooded in the tsunami to the point where many of the students, staff and members of the local community spent that first night after the earthquake, freezing in the snow, in the dark, on the roof. Many were separated from loved ones and they were all scared. They were only able to have about one cracker each for dinner and no one was really able to sleep. She said hands down it was the most horrible night of her life.

Our advisors at our board of education were also present at this meeting and they told us that the shaking was so bad in the city center that if you were at the top of a 6 story building looking out the window, you would see one end of a city block one moment and be at the other end the next. The shaking lasted for over 5 minutes.

Destruction at Kesennuma

Aftershocks continued to happen frequently for months, and many were over shindo 5. By the time I came to Sendai, they had had over 1000 aftershocks. Many ALTs still kept all of their appliances on the floors of their apartments. Quite a few stockpile water and everyone has to have an earthquake emergency kit which consists of a crank charger/radio, flashlight, emergency food, collapsible 2 liter water jug, a weather proof foil survival blanket and copies of all important documents.

I experienced quite a few earthquakes the first few weeks I was in Japan. The biggest was in August during summer vacation. I was with the basketball club in the gym and the teachers calmly directed everyone to go outside. We stayed outside for awhile until an announcement was made saying it had been a shindo 4 or 5 and that any student who needed to could go home for the day. Shortly afterward, many parents showed up at the school to check on their kids.

After a few weeks of getting settled into my new apartment and getting the hang of the basics at work, I decided to join an a cappella singing group called The Christmas Crooners. This group had raised money for local charities concerning children’s health and wellbeing before the earthquake and after that day has been raising money mainly for children who have been affected by it. We put together a Christmas song set and raised money last December by caroling in the street in front of Mitsukoshi department store in Ichibancho a few weeks before Christmas.

The Crooners also arranged around 10 performances at places such as the local YMCA, the Donald McDonald House and other children’s hospitals, and schools. Every event was moving and it was always great to see children singing and dancing along with us. Though all of those performances were memorable, I will never forget our performances in Kesennuma.

On December 10th and 11th, we went on an overnight trip to Kesennuma to sing at about 6 temporary housing sites. I knew that Kesenuma had been devastated by the Earthquake, but I had seen so many positive news stories about rebuilding and so many amazing before and after pictures of the clean-up effort that I was not prepared at all for what I saw.  At first, the town seemed almost back to normal. I was so happy to see the astounding restoration. There were still lots of tsunami wrecked cars stacked about and some empty lots where I knew houses used to be, but overall it looked like a functioning town. However, that was before I realized that we hadn’t reached the areas that had been most affected by the tsunami. You literally cross a bridge from one side of town to the other and it is like the difference between day and night.

About 8 months after the tsunami, to me, some places in Kesenuma still looked like it had happened yesterday. The scale of destruction really began to hit home when I saw it with my own eyes. Even though it looked untouched to me, the logical part of me knew that clean-up crews had been working their hardest with the resources that they had. I couldn’t imagine what it must have really been like immediately following that terrible day. There were still piles of debris, ships in buildings and in fields, roads were still wiped out, crossing guards were at many intersections where the lights were still not repaired and the list goes on and on. Kessennuma is equal parts low ground and higher ground. Structures on the lower areas were gone, structures on higher ground survived.

In order for us to perform in Kesennuma, local Kesennuma ALT’s had arranged the venues and offered their apartments as a place to crash for the night. There are not too many places for visitors to spend the night so they really made this trip possible. We drove to our first singing location, met up with the local ALTs and I saw the temporary housing units for the first time. Even though this is a picture of the units from Minami Sanriku, another devastated town that lost over half of its population, the housing units look the same everywhere.

Minami Sanriku, taken March 5, 2011 from Washington Post:

At the first site, we sang outside of the units in our designated location until an incredibly nice Oba-chan (older lady) opened up their community center. Inside was almost completely empty except for folding chairs and a small kitchen unit. We did not go into anyone’s home, but as I saw it, these units are functional, keep out the elements, and that is about it. They are very small and the walls are thin. It does not give one a sense of independence. Thousands of people are still living in these units. Many lost everything in the earthquake and these “temporary” housing units do not look like they will be going away anytime soon.

The people who were displaced by the disaster and living in these units were incredibly warm and welcoming. It was great to talk to them and to sing for them. One of the ALT’s that traveled with us also brought a Santa suit and bags and bags of presents that his family back home in Britain donated for occasions like this. The faces of the kids and adults lit up when they saw him and he had a present for everyone. Even small gestures like these that can make a difference. Of course donating money to relief funds and larger programs such as the Japanese Red Cross is immensely helpful, but those organizations will not be able to put resources towards things like Christmas presents for children in temporary housing units.

We had three performances each day and we spent the night in an ALT’s house discussing the earthquake. The Kesennuma ALT’s also related their experiences that day. They were at school, as were most of the Sendai ALTs. However, instead of going home after the quake, most stayed at school due to the imminent tsunami warnings. The first floor of the apartment we were staying in had been completely flooded. It was right by a bay where boats were docked. It was also on pretty high ground. I would say at least 20 feet above the water level, but the tsunami rose to 9 meters high in Kesennuma, which is roughly 30 feet. The tsunami water line is still visible by the door on the outside of her apartment. Her apartment was also partially shielded by the buildings that had been in front of it. Now, only the foundations of those buildings remain. Another ALT was teaching at a school on Oshima island in Kesennuma bay. All access points to the island were destroyed by the tsunami and he was stranded on it for several days.

The conversation also went to the deaths of JETS Taylor Anderson and Monty Dickson. Taylor was a JET in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Japan and Monty was a JET in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Japan. Sendai is in Miyagi prefecture and our wider community also includes the Miyagi JETs who are located in places such as Kesennuma and Ishinomaki. Ishinomaki was actually the last stop on my train line, the Senseki Line, before the tsunami stopped all train service past Takagimachi, which is about 13 stops from Ishinomaki. Taylor was planning on returning home in July 2011, but if she had decided to re-contract for another year, I would have seen her at welcome parties and our yearly Skills Development Conference. Many of the Miyagi JETs knew her or at least had met her and her loss was felt very deeply in the JET community.

Before I left for Japan on July 15th, while I was still working at the Embassy, I had the opportunity to meet Taylor’s father, Mr. Andy Anderson. Mr. Anderson and the Anderson family have been very involved in relief efforts in Japan. He came to the Embassy to speak at a JET alumni event about what the JET community can do to help. Madam Ambassador, Ms. Yoriko Fujisaki, knew that I had a sister who lived in Akita and that I was moving to Sendai on JET and she arranged for me to meet with Mr. Anderson. He is a remarkable person and if you have the chance please check out and support what he is doing for Japan:

Asahi Shimbun article on Andy Anderson and his family’s efforts to support Ishinomaki

JET Memorial Project: Taylor Anderson Memorial

Taylor Anderson Reading Corner Dedication

After sharing earthquake experiences, we all lightened the mood by playing games and celebrating the fact that Japan is rebuilding and even though the process will take many years, people from all over the world, not just in Japan, are giving their support. That night there was also a full lunar eclipse. We all stood on the exposed foundations of the destroyed buildings to get a glimpse of it. Standing outside together in the cold, in Kesennuma, Japan, witnessing a natural phenomenon, gave me a strange sense of continuity and peace in a place that had face so much horror.

Our last performance in Kesennuma was filmed by a news crew and given a small spot on national NHK news that night. When I returned to school on Monday, a few of my teachers and students had seen it as well and they ran up to me to tell me. I was happy to be a very small part of the visible international response to the disaster. Unrelated to the news story, quite a few times, when I meet new people or even when I am just casually eating out, they make a point to tell me that they really appreciate the international aid that they have received. I am always moved and humbled by this. Most of the time, nothing even instigates these comments.

Today, as I am writing this, it is the first year anniversary of the earthquake in Japan. Yesterday, we had our graduation ceremony at school. There were many tears and every speaker mentioned that day. It is often referred to simply as “ano hi” (that day) or “ano toki” (that time) with everyone understanding the reference. During the ceremony, there was a small earthquake, and everyone in the hall, students, teachers, parents all whispered “jishin da” (it’s an earthquake) simultaneously under their breath. It was very brief, but I knew everyone was momentarily transported back to March 11, 2011.

Watching the Japanese news, specifically the local Miyagi and Sendai City news stations, this past week, every story is about the disaster. News reporters cry as they remember it. They show clips from news reports before and after the disaster to show the differences. There are specials on the amazing Japan Self Defenses forces, coast guard, and international militaries and rescue teams that came immediately to help. One of the most uplifting segments that the news shows are clips of the babies who were born on March 11th and who are now a year old.

Ganbarou Miyagi!

In remembrance of that day, several affected middle schools’ choirs will be singing at the Sendai International Center. The students from Takasago Junior High school are one of the groups chosen to sing. Flags created by each elementary school and junior high school in our area will be displayed in the shopping arcades around Sendai Station. There is also going to be a fireworks display to represent the souls of those who were lost.

Even though I had some fears and was apprehensive about coming to Sendai on JET, I do not regret moving to Sendai city for even a moment. I was not here during the earthquake, but it is still an everyday reality not only for those of us living in the affected region, but in all of Japan. I was not able to include many stories that I have since heard about that day, such as families being separated and their tearful reunions, a dinner I had with people from Minami Sanriku, or a friend’s story about being in the tsunami in Natori. Everyone here who experienced that terrible day has a story worth hearing and everyone has a deeper appreciation for life since that time.

I would finally just like to say that the recovery period in Japan is far from over and there is still so much to be done. Any donation or show of support is incredibly welcome here and to honor those who lost their lives that day and those who are rebuilding theirs, I would like to encourage you to make a donation on this first year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Every little bit does help, and though it might not make an immediate difference, I know from first-hand experience that the people here are incredibly touched by the support of the international community.


Danielle worked as an administrative assistant in the Economics Section at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Gettysburg College in May 2008 with a double major in Japanese Studies and International Affairs.

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6 Responses to Sent to Sendai: Reflections of an ALT after the Tohoku Earthquake

  1. Caleb Carter says:

    Thanks for sharing your story and report from Sendai. I’ve been reflecting on March 11th too much today from my home in Tokyo. I spent three years in the JET programme in Kyushu (2004-2007) and had a wonderful experience. My wife’s family is also from Ishinomaki (they survived the disaster), and I had the chance to visit them several years back. Its a beautiful area. Good luck with your work. I’m sure you and your fellow JETs are making a really positive impact in communities that need it now.

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  5. courtneycoulston says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m not usually the type to read through long articles but this really had me. Thanks again.

  6. Abby says:

    Thank you for sharing! I am an incoming JET this year and just received my placement. I’ll be in Kesennuma. Miyagi was one of my top picks, so I’m stoked for that. Reading this has given me a whole deeper appreciation for a city that before today I didn’t know existed, but am excited to join the community.

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