JET Program CIR Report





CIR Report from Kanazawa (19)

By Sophie Bocklandt
(Coordinator for International Relations)


Friday March 11th, 2011, 2:46pm. I was at the office when everything started shaking a little. After a minute I felt dizzy and got out of my chair, my Chinese colleague did the same. Waw, two minutes is quite long, there must have been a heavy earthquake somewhere, we all agreed and went back to work. Then worried phone calls started coming in, we checked the news and suddenly saw a tsunami take over a whole village on BBC World. Not an image of a country far far away, but here, right here in Japan. Feelings of disbelief, horror, shock, grief, panic. Work no longer existed, we checked the internet and discussed every new piece of information we could find and we started checking up on friends and relatives in Tokyo and up north. In the meanwhile I got phone calls from France, which reminded me that my family must be so worried when they see these images on TV and so I phoned them and reassured all my friends on facebook, but still dozens of worried phone calls and emails came in that night. I was contacted by a Belgian radio station, but I couldn’t give much information, because Kanazawa luckily had not suffered any damage. All Japanese TV channels broadcasted 24/7 on the disaster and would do so for over a week. We were loaded with information about earthquakes and tsunamis, about nuclear plants and refugee shelters, suddenly we all became experts on disasters and I prepared an emergency kit just in case. Everybody waited for statements from Prime Minister Naoto Kan, from his Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and from TEPCO. Unfortunately good news was rare. Still I didn’t panic, what couldn’t be said of those who watched the international media. Looking for sensation they often gave a twisted presentation of the facts or even wrong information, which resulted in a massive panic among the foreigners in Japan. Many of them left right after the earthquake, hence a new word: “fly-jin” (“gai-jin” is the Japanese word for foreigner). Even I, in far away and safe Kanazawa, felt pressured and frustrated and exhausted after all the emails and phone calls from Belgium, and a cricked neck was the painful result. The Belgian Embassy prepared an airplane for nationals who wanted to go back, which I decided not to do, but I asked for iodine pills just in case. Compared to other embassies, the Belgian Embassy did a great job and stayed up and running in Tokyo in the aftermath of the earthquake. Moreover, the newly appointed Belgian ambassador Luc Liebaut arrived in Japan as foreseen on March 15th!

In the weeks after the earthquake many events were cancelled out of respect for the victims, but other events were organized nonetheless with the purpose of raising money for the devastated areas. I have always been impressed by the numerous volunteer activities in Japan, and this time the will to help out was beyond words. Everywhere people were raising money, donation boxes were found at every register, people could donate relief goods, volunteers could sign up to welcome people from the devastated areas in their home or to actually go and help with the clean-up in Tohoku. The city of Kanazawa also did whatever it could to offer assistance. One day I helped out at a storage facility where the city was gathering relief goods that citizens dropped off and I witnessed with my own eyes the tons of water, food, toilet paper, diapers, blankets, etc. destined for Tohoku. In total Kanazawa organized three of those relief good gatherings, collected millions of yen in donation and offered housing to families from the devastated areas. All those data are published on the city’s website.

One of the headings on that same website are the sympathy letters from the sister cities, including the city of Ghent. Mayor Daniel Termont even recorded a video message, as did a bunch of students from Ghent University and other Belgian Japan-friends. A Japanese woman living in Ghent used the money she raised at a sale to buy Belgian cookies and toys to be sent to children who suffered from the earthquake. Personally I did a 12 km run to raise money, and with the help of my friends and family in Belgium, Japan and all over the world, I eventually gathered 200.000 yen (1700 euro), which was all donated to the Red Cross’ special program for the Tohoku Earthquake. Furthermore me and a bunch of JET friends baked more than a hundred cookies and muffins and bread for charity at a local flea market. We sold out in less than two hours and made at least 20.000 yen (170 euro). Another original idea from a JET was the creation of an “I love Fukushima” T-shirt, which we Ishikawa JETs also try to wear at different occasions to show our support.

Even though I’m a foreigner, I was here in Japan when this devastating historical event occurred and it made me feel even more connected to this country and its people, so I want to do anything in my power to help out with the reconstruction. As Prime Minister Kan said, it is the toughest and most difficult crisis for Japan since the end of World War II. The economy has been hit badly, Japanese export is facing hard times and tourism has taken a serious dip. In the city of Kanazawa there was a drop of 60 to 90% of tourists, therefore the city started a massive campaign to reassure all foreigners that the city is safe to visit. On the city’s website you can read a welcome message in 10 languages and watch a video message of all CIRs, including myself (under other languages, at the bottom of the page).

Amidst the tragedy in the northeast of Japan, my life in Kanazawa in the west of Japan continued. With the end of my contract in sight, I am focusing on finding new employment, learning all about job hunting and writing resumes in Japan. With the economy at a low point, it is a tough time to find a job, and rejections and disappointment are part of it, but I believe my JET experience is truly valuable and will help me to find something new, be it in Japan or somewhere else.

In March my Korean colleague returned home after 3 years and at the same time the Chinese trainee who was here for almost a year went back, leaving a silence behind. The dreaded personnel transfer on April 1st also took place at the International Section, so I had to say goodbye to my lovely supervisor and welcome a new one, my fourth by now. A new Korean CIR arrived as well, but the arrival of a Chinese CIR has been delayed because of the earthquake. In the meanwhile in Belgium interviews have been held for my position, so one of these days we will know my successor. The end of my contract is suddenly very near!

Work-wise I keep doing my speeches on Belgium and giving cultural classes. Spring is the beginning of the fiscal as well as the academic year in Japan. Schools have spring break before the new school year begins, so we don’t have many school visits during this season. The same with events, because it’s a new fiscal year, there are some budget restrictions which results in a halt of events for a few weeks. Fortunately I was able to do a final Easter event for kids, due to the fact that Easter fell so late this year. Personally I withheld from sweets during Lent, so I wasn’t able to taste the chocolate eggs we made together. We also dyed boiled eggs and tried our hand at decorating egg shells after blowing out the white and yolk inside, the way we did in Belgian elementary school. But the most exciting activity for the kids was definitely the egg hunt in all the pots and pans at our disposal in the cooking class.

For the Hokuriku Belgium Association I organized a cooking class, making Flemish stew with Belgian beer. A fun new experience was a live radio-interview for the local radio about the biggest differences between Belgium and Japan, as well as a short appearance on stage at the Osugi Musical Theatre, representing Belgium with the flag draped around me and in the funny company of a French baker playing a Belgian waffle maker. I was also asked to be a judge in an art competition for children. Together with the director of the famous 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa I helped select drawings which will be exposed at an international art event in Washington later this year.

In fact there is now a French intern at the museum. She was supposed to arrive in April but with the earthquake she finally arrived in May. The exchange student who was supposed to be here for a year, went back to France right after the quake and decided not to come back. The Belgian exchange students who were supposed to study at the Kanazawa University for a few months didn’t come either, neither did the group of Ghent University students who were supposed to pass by Kanazawa on their study tour through Japan. Luckily we could welcome the new Belgian ambassador here for a few days. Same as the previous ambassador he came here for the EU school project, giving two speeches about the EU in local high schools. I had the honor of meeting him and guiding him during his short tour through Kanazawa, his first official visit in Japan outside of Tokyo!

Not only do I need a new job, I will also have to move, so I used the Golden Week to do a thorough spring cleaning and make a first selection of my stuff. Because Golden Week was probably my last holiday in Kanazawa, I also took advantage of that to spend time with close friends here and visit some places and events that were still on my to-do list. Annual participation in the Green Walk, this year 15 kilometers all the way up to the Yuwaku hot spring area in Kanazawa. A drive with friends to neighboring Toyama Prefecture to go see a 17 meter-high-wall of snow. A walk through the beautiful parks of Mount Utatsu and a stroll along the Higashi Chaya tea district in Kanazawa, where long kites in the shape of carps were floating on the river and in the wind to celebrate Childrens’ Day. I also made a daytrip to the beautiful Yamanaka hot spring area, not only to enjoy some relaxation at the local public bath and a stroll along the picturesque Korogi Bridge over the gorge, but also to visit the famous Yamanaka lacquer ware festival. Golden Week is the best time to stack up on local products like porcelain and lacquer ware, because you can buy them for cheap at various local festivals during the holidays. This time we could enjoy a long Golden Week because all the holidays fell on weekdays instead of weekends, so after spending several days at ease in Ishikawa, I spent the last weekend in Nagoya, meeting up with Expo friends and finally trying hitsumabushi, the famous Nagoya eel-on-rice dish, which you have to eat in three times with different toppings. But the main event of the weekend was the attendance of my very first baseball game ever! Of course I have seen it on TV and I know it’s one of the most popular sports in Japans, but in Belgium it is not and so I wasn’t familiar with the game. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on for most of the time, I enjoyed cheering along with the numerous Dragons fans at the Nagoya Dome, singing (for every player there’s a specific song), yelling, eating hotdogs and drinking beer, basically having a fun night out.

This spring has been very emotional. It goes without words that most of our thoughts went out to the victims of the earthquake, but for those who were lucky enough to escape the devastation, life continued. I attended the wedding of a colleague, as well as my first funeral in Japan. Besides volunteering for Tohoku, I volunteered at an orphanage doing Easter activities with the kids, who were really excited to have visitors, which made it so painful to leave. I met up with my Bulgarian friend in Amanohashidate, roughly meaning "bridge in the heaven", a 3.6 kilometer long, pine tree covered sand bar connecting two opposing sides of a bay. To view the sand bar as a "bridge in the heaven", you have to bend over and look at it from between your legs. Amanohashidate is one of Japan’s three scenic views and the tranquil environment was exactly what we needed to take a break from daily sad news. Still the quake was never far out of our thoughts, because one of the three scenic views is located in Tohoku and we were both wondering if we would ever make it up there.

Spring season also means cherry blossoms in Japan, and their beauty this year was a harsh contrast with the sad images on TV. I enjoyed the cherry blossom illumination at Kenrokuen garden with my colleagues, and a Japanese friend took me on a gorgeous boat river trip. But the most beautiful cherry trees to me are the ones right in front of my door, along the Sai river, a view I will definitely miss.

A friend of mine invited me to join her for kimono class, so for the last few months I’ve been learning how to put on a kimono myself and how to tie different kinds of obi belts. At first it was just for fun, but as it happens with so many hobbies, I got really excited about it and have started a small collection, which recently brought me and my kimono friends to a flea market in Kyoto looking for bargains.

Once again I would like to express my condolences to all the people who suffered loss during the Tohoku earthquake. My thoughts are with you and I will do whatever I can to help Japan to recover from this tragedy. Ganbare Nippon!