Christchurch woman finds same sense of community while teaching in disaster-stricken Namie, Japan

JOEL INESON
Last updated 09:35 18/07/2017

Amy Vivian-Neal, second from right, teaches at schools in Namie, Japan, which had 600 students before the 2011 Tohoku disaster. Now they have 14.

TORU HANAI/REUTERS
A classroom at Ukedo elementary school in Namie, left as it was for six years after being damaged by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
TORU HANAI/REUTERS
A Namie home, six years after the tsunami tore through and the building sat in an evacuation zone near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
TORU HANAI/REUTERS
Writing on the wall inside Ukedo elementary school, Namie.

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Amy Vivian-Neal says some may think she was unfortunate to be assigned a teaching role in a displaced Japanese town of Namie.

The 23-year-old Christchurch woman feels lucky to be there.

The once coastal town was all but wiped out after the Tohoku disaster of March 11, 2011, where a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami.

Soon after the tremor and tsunami, a cooling system stopped working at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is about 8 kilometres from Namie. Survivors were evacuated as three nuclear reactors began to melt down.

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"It's a town that has lost its location and, in a way, lost its identity a bit," Vivian-Neal said.

"It was a lot like the situation back in Canterbury, with a lot of people having to be moved around and having [temporary] homes and that's been going on for the past five or six years."

Vivian-Neal was a student at Avonside Girls' High School, catching the bus home with her sister after a half day of school, when the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake struck.

"We didn't have electricity for about two, three weeks or so and we didn't go to school for quite a while.

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"I remember when the TV flicked on, we finally got electricity back in South New Brighton and shortly after there was the news about the Tohoku tsunami and earthquake."

News of Tohoku resonated with Vivian-Neal, who has familial roots in Okinawa, an island to the far south of Japan.

Her placement was in Namie's primary and secondary schools, where student numbers were around 600 before Tohoku. Now there are 14.

She said she saw the same resilience and sense of community among its displaced people as she witnessed following the Christchurch quakes.

"The endurance people have here is amazing, and the fact that they keep on smiling.

"It's just that sort of attitude. The turmoil might not be over yet, but we're still standing here, strong as a community and that's the main similarity I see."

Her work began about 11 months ago and was organised under The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.

Despite her previous experience, Vivian-Neal said getting to know the people of Namie was initially difficult. The town had essentially moved inland to Nihonmatsu or people were spread elsewhere around the Fukushima district, she said.

"I didn't think I would have made such a positive and deep connection with the Namie community had I not also gone through a similar experience.

"The grief and hardship they brought to each of our communities [has] helped bridge our cultural differences."

The Japanese Government lifted evacuation orders for parts of Namie in March.

It would potentially further the spread of Namie residents, as some moved back and some continued their lives out of the town.

Like the situation in Christchurch, it also highlighted that young people were growing up in a vastly different place to previous generations.

"Some people are going back because they can't let go of their home town. That's where they've lived their whole life.

"Because the kids I teach would've been about 5 years old when it happened, they don't have such strong connections with their local town.

"But they are still quite aware that they are a person from Namie."

- Stuff

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