I visited Fukushima (pronounced Fu-ku-shi-ma with the same stress on each syllable, as in almost all Japanese words) in 1998 as part of a school exchange between Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, where I was head, and four Japanese high schools.
The exchange had started 10 years earlier when Nissan had established its factory in the north-east and I decided that, as the young people of Japan and England probably knew very little about each other, I would start an exchange. I telephoned the Japanese embassy the next day and thus started a life-changing experience for the many young people who subsequently took part in the annual two-way exchange.
All the schools we linked with treated us like royalty and Fukushima was no exception. Festivals took place in the school; we visited a fireworks display in the town like no other I have even seen; we climbed one of the many local mountains together and ate watermelon at the top, cut with a large sword carried to the top by a teacher for that purpose.
I had experienced an earth tremor in Tokyo on the first night of an earlier exchange visit. As I was 12 floors up in a hotel and it was the middle of the night, this was a scary experience. But this was a gentle runble in comparison to the Fukushima earthquake of 2011.
The school presented me with “Fukushima Today and Tomorrow” and I have now re-read the story of the area, with its mild climate and prodigious fruit trees. I am wondering what has happened to the people I met in 1998.
Japan is well prepared for earthquakes. Its buildings are as quakeproof as any in the world and its people prepare more thoroughly for every eventuality than any I have met. Its culture of politeness, where Yes often means No, where crime is minimal and where everything is carefully done to make life as good as possible for everyone else, should mean that things are as ordered as they can be, even in the post-tsunami chaos.
Fukushima is just an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo. My book states that the area used to be known as ‘the back country’, an unsophisticated but dependable producer of rice and electricity for the denser population to the south. The effect on the area of the tsunami and the nuclear explosions will therefore be huge, but the biggest challenge will be for the whole Japanese culture as the people seek to come to terms with this disaster. We can only watch and pray.