A Witness in Japan – Guest Blog from TEFL Teacher, Ryan Hartsfield

Teaching English in Japan

This post was written by Denise Kray

Ryan Hartsfield, a recent BridgeTEFL graduate and experienced TEFL teacher, also found himself a witness to the tragedy in Japan in March 2011. He received his IDELT™ certificate after completing the October, 2011 IDELT™ course in Denver, Colorado.

In university, my initial plan was to double major in economics and Japanese and try to work for a Japanese corporation. The economics portion of the plan fell through, but I continued to study Japanese history, literature, and the language. My junior year, I decided to study abroad in Chiba at Kanda Gaigo Daigaku. I had a great time there and really wanted to go back. I didn’t necessarily want to go and live in a small town, completely disconnected from big city opportunities, so instead of going through the JET program, I was contracted to work at two public middle schools through a company called Interac. They set me up right outside of Yokohama about twenty minutes from a train station. Being in a much larger metropolitan area, I didn’t really get a sense of community through most of my stay. In my final year there, I joined a rock climbing gym that had a small group of regulars and really could delve into Japanese society. We went on a few climbing trips and had some great nights out together.
The day the earthquake hit, I had no classes in the afternoon so I left school early to meet a friend of mine at IKEA. While we were sitting in the cafeteria eating a late lunch, the earthquake hit. All I could think was, “Seriously, is this happening?” I’d felt a few smaller earthquakes before, but this one kept going and grew stronger and stronger. A few people screamed, and everyone started hiding under the tables. I sat there for a second in shock as the ceiling fixtures violently shook. When a pipe fell loudly from the ceiling onto a nearby table, I quickly came to the realization that I too should probably hide under a table. Without really experiencing a massive earthquake like the one in March, you can’t really understand how powerless you feel. Crouched under the table I realized that at that point I had no say in whether I would live or die, I just had to ride it out and see what happened. It was a very humbling experience all in all. Throughout the ordeal, IKEA was extremely helpful. Upon evacuation of the building, which continued to sway like a ship at sea, they handed out snacks, water, even blankets and pillows for those stranded there. A few weaker aftershocks came, but for the most part everything was over.

From there we waited a couple of hours to get our car out of the parking garage and headed home with our free blankets. Near IKEA, electricity was flowing but as we drove back to my apartment we quickly discovered the true extent of the infrastructure damage. Cell phones were down, traffic lights were out, and the local train was stuck blocking a main intersection. What should have been a 15 minute drive turned into a 6 hour one. There was no electricity in my area of town at all. There had been a major rush on convenience stores earlier in the day, so all that was left to eat were some random onigiri and cup ramen. A large amount of people I knew had been stranded in Tokyo and were forced to walk home for a couple of hours. One of my friends even ended up buying a bike and riding three hours home. It wasn’t until the next day we all realized the true extent of the damage, and then came the radiation scare.
I had been planning to come back to the United States at the end of the first semester prior to the earthquake, but my family didn’t want me to wait that long. Despite their worries, I stayed until my contract was up, allowing for the schools to prepare for a new English teacher. The most difficult part of the disaster for me was leaving Japan behind, despite how troubled they remained. Before I left, I was able to head up to a small town by Ishinomaki and do some volunteer work. Seeing the damage first hand was mind-blowing; nothing remained aside from concrete or steel structures.

I’d really like to go back and teach in glorious Nippon, but I feel like I have an opportunity to see a larger portion of the world and I’d like to take advantage of it. The radiation worries are still not completely resolved either, so that too is worrying. I’ve talked to my Japanese friends and they also believe I should move somewhere besides Japan for the time being. One day, I’d definitely like to go back and live there, but for now I think I’ll explore for a while longer.