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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

The new ambassadors

March 28, 2013


Tohoku high schoolers serve as ambassadors at foreign schools





High schoolers from Japan's disaster-hit prefectures are going abroad not only as students but also as "diplomats," sharing their experiences and thoughts with others of their generation.

Seventeen-year-old Atsuko Arimoto, who is currently studying at a boarding school in Maryland, took time during a brief trip home to talk to other students from Japan's disaster-stricken areas.

"True, I face difficulties in studying in an unfamiliar environment. But (in the United States) I am being supported by friends who come from different countries," Arimoto told a group of some 50 students in Tokyo on March 9. "I believe this experience will be a great asset in my life."

Arimoto's home in the town of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, was only 3 kilometers away from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and was part of the designated no-entry zone.

Her family was forced to move from one evacuation center to the next four times before moving into a provisional housing unit in Iwaki, located about 40 kilometers away from the Fukushima plant in the same prefecture.

In 2012, she won a scholarship for the Beyond Tomorrow High School Study Abroad Program, sponsored by the Global Fund for Education Assistance.

Before her departure last summer, Arimoto gave a speech in front of then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was visiting Japan for a conference.

In her speech, Arimoto thanked the U.S. military for its support in relief efforts for the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

She also said, "My dream is to become a diplomat and return some of what I have received."

When she talked about her experience of the earthquake and tsunami to her classmates in the United States, she said she was bombarded with questions such as "Are people still evacuating?" and "Will you never be able to return home?"

She answered each question thoroughly, which made her feel it was worth going abroad.

But there is one thing she said she wants to convey more than anything.

"Even though my life has changed dramatically due to the disaster, I do not feel I am unhappy."

Having received help and support, she now wants to act for others, she said.

She took her first step toward that dream on March 16, from when she spent about a week in the Dominican Republic as part of a volunteer team to build a house for homeless children.

AFS Intercultural Programs also provides full scholarships for high school students studying abroad at least a year. Together, these two organizations have sent 17 students from the disaster areas to 10 countries. Eleven more students are expected to leave Japan for foreign high schools this summer.

Riko Fujii, a second-year student at Iwate prefectural Morioka Daiichi Senior High School studied for one year beginning January 2012 at a Malaysian high school.

A native of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, she lost her grandfather, who was in the hospital at the time, in the tsunami.

She told her Malaysian classmates of her experience of the disaster and showed them photos.

One of them asked how to protect oneself from an earthquake, and Fujii answered, "Turn off the heat and take cover under a desk."

Everyone looked as if they were hearing that lesson for the first time, Fujii said, adding that there seemed to be no disaster prevention education in the country.

Some students mistakenly thought that due to high levels of radiation, people were unable to enter eastern Japan, she said.

"A lack of information on post-disaster situations causes people to speculate," said Fujii, 18, in a telephone interview. "I felt the need of passing on information directly."

Nanami Takahashi, 17, is studying at a high school in northern France.

She organized a gathering of foreign students to exchange views on the earthquake that hit Japan in 2011, and said she was moved by what a Norwegian student had to say.

"The student hoped that Norway would further put a lot of effort into wind power generation so it could provide electricity to other countries that have been relying on nuclear energy," she said in a telephone interview.

Takahashi said she wants to take that student's message home with her.

She was in Sendai when the earthquake struck.

Takahashi's mother cried every night because she had been unable to reach her parents (Takahashi's grandparents) who lived near the coast, Takahashi recalled.

Her father, who saw people washed away by the tsunami from the window at his workplace, was troubled by nightmares.

Takahashi said she was able to overcome her own anxieties thanks to encouraging messages coming from around the world.

She says she wants to create a place where the young people of the world can discuss lessons from the disaster and apply them into the future.

Participating in the Beyond Tomorrow High School Study Abroad Program are five boarding schools in the United States and Europe, which waive tuition and board for students from disaster-stricken areas until their graduation.

In addition, the fund uses contributions from companies to provide each student with 20,000 yen ($212.20) a month for living expenses.

A Swiss high school hosts a student from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, who lost her mother in the tsunami.

"We would consider providing support for other students if we receive recommendations for such action," said an official in charge of foreign students.

However, it is up to the schools whether students are allowed to study for a prolonged period at the same school.

"We want to see an increase in host schools, but two years after the disaster it is very difficult. (Many schools are reluctant) even after we give detailed explanations," said an official at the Beyond Tomorrow program.

At AFS, the situation is even more strained.

The organization relies on private donations for each student's study expenses of 1.5 million yen. AFS sent more than 10 students abroad in 2012 and this year, but only seven students will be sent in 2014, mostly to the United States.

Private companies donated large amounts immediately after the earthquake, but such donations are declining.

AFS Japan fears it may not be able to afford to seek applicants for studying abroad in 2015 and after.

"I want many people to see students who have studied overseas and realize that ours is a significant scholarship program," said a public relations official at the organization.

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