Tomoru Kameoka

31st August 2012 at 01:00
The English teacher and year head at Iwasaki Junior High in Fukushima province lived through the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan, on 11 March 2011 - an event which then threatened disaster at a nuclear reactor 30 miles away. He talks about how pupils responded, the isolation his home city suffered, and why, like most at the school, he never wanted to leave. Interview by Henry Hepburn

When did you realise something was wrong?

At 2.46pm I was standing between the school and the gym. Then the ground started to shake. An earthquake is not that uncommon in Japan. We were just waiting for it to stop. But it didn't for ages - more than a minute. It was pretty clear it was an abnormal situation.

How did the pupils react?

A lot of children - our pupils are 13-15 - were crying. They just sat down on the spot. Everything was falling down in the rooms and off the shelves.

What did you do when the alarm went off?

I took the pupils outside and waited for their parents.

What was the mood like?

In general they kept quite calm. Some were crying. It was a very cold day and they were shivering.

How bad was damage to the city?

Enormous. Although we are a few miles from the coast and the tsunami did not reach us, big quakes hit our city four or five times in the month after 11 March. Electricity was OK, but the water was cut off for a month.

Did any pupils or staff lose their lives?

None at Iwaki City schools, but on the nearby coast fatalities were high.

Did the building remain intact?

The school building was fine - it didn't fall down. But within our city there were schools affected.

What is your most vivid memory of the day?

On the personal side, terrible chaos in my house: stuff everywhere, I couldn't find anything, although I didn't need to worry about my wife and my son, who's 14, as they were elsewhere. Some teachers had to rebuild their houses. In terms of public areas, I would say the huge damage at Sendai airport. I could see the tsunami swallowing an area near where I live - that was a real shock.

When did the school reopen?

We held a new semester ceremony on 6 April (2011). The pupils were meeting for the first time since the quake. They hugged each other and cried for joy. They came with face masks, for fear of radiation, although they don't wear them any more.

What was the mood among staff that day?

It was difficult, but we had the spirit that we had to be the ones to lead. There were many inconveniences, but we were trying to keep strong and do whatever we could.

How did radiation affect lives in the weeks following the earthquake?

We couldn't go outside at all. When people heard names like Iwaki City, or Fukushima City, they had a preconception that everything had been contaminated. No lorries wanted to come to the area. There weren't sufficient food supplies or petrol. It was almost like what I heard from my parents about rationing during the war. Around the station, where normally it's buzzing with people, there was nobody. It is said some 60 per cent of pupils temporarily moved away from Iwaki City, and some teachers with small children left. It was understandable, but only one or two of our 400 pupils moved away permanently.

Were you tempted to leave?

No. My parents and my family live in Iwaki City - I can't possibly just abandon my parents. Even if I had a choice of moving away, what would I do and where would I go? If I went to Tokyo to live in a hotel, what would I do without money? And what would the students do? Our family is there: our foundation of our life is there.

Are last year's events discussed in school?

Maybe in daily life we don't talk about the earthquake as such, but when you look at the weather forecast for Iwaki City they show the radioactivity levels. There are measures of radioactive levels all around the school, although in Iwaki City they are very low compared with other areas, like Fukushima. We've started doing swimming lessons in an outdoor pool, and athletics is taking place outside.

How much reconstruction of the school and city - has taken place?

Some areas recovered fast, others did not.

How has the school changed?

A sense of unity among the pupils got stronger. But their lives are almost the same as usual.

How did making a film help students? (see below)

Not in the way you might imagine. When the school started back I realised I still had a positive outlook, and the students seemed very positive. I wanted to capture that because it seemed far removed from what was being reported. Sometimes school lunches could be nothing like what we used to have - maybe only a piece of bread, milk and ham. But even that could be enjoyed because we all had each other.

What message would you like to share with teachers in Scotland about what happened to your school and city?

I believe the fundamental thing as a teacher is to be aware that we are always together with the students and the parents. We're not just teaching the subject; we're there to help the students go through any kind of growth or development as human beings.

Mr Kameoka was in the UK for the Panasonic Kid Witness News Global Awards with pupils from Iwasaki Junior High, which won the Best Witness Award for its film We Are From .


Born: Fukushima City, 1964

Education: Studied education at Fukushima University

Career: Joined a private software company after graduating, and three years later became a teacher. Taught at Iwasaki Junior High School in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, until July 2011. Now at Nakoso Junior High, also in Iwaki City.

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