A year in Fukushima

N8N co-founder Iris Riddell is spending a year in Minamisoma, the Japanese city that was all but swept away in the devastating 2011 tsunami. She has wanted to return to Japan ever since visiting aged 19 with the Hamilton-based drumming group Wai Taiko. Iris talks about her hopes and how she came to be living 25km away from the disabled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

LAST NOVEMBER I found myself at a loose end. I’d left my job and was trying to figure out what to do next.

One day I stumbled on an ad for Interac, Japan’s largest private provider of Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). Without giving it much thought, I cobbled together an application. To cut a long (and rather dull; application processes aren’t known for their thrilling, swashbuckling narratives) story short – I was accepted. On March 18 I boarded a plane bound for Narita, Japan.

Iris Riddell in Japan
Nineteen-year-old Iris promised herself she would return to Japan – she has kept that promise!

After a full-on week of training at Narita Hilton Hotel (seriously – some days ran 12 to 14 hours long!) I emerged blinking into the crisp Japanese spring, alongside my fellow new teachers from all around the world. Before long we would be shipped off to our respective placement areas to settle into our apartments and familiarise ourselves with the lay of the land before starting teaching at our schools.

A typical ALT gig consists of being assigned to two to six rural Japanese schools, usually a mix of Elementary and Junior High, which you cycle through in the course of a week. My placement looks a little different. I am assigned to only one, Odaka Elementary School, in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture.

A pretty common jibe I received from people in the lead-up to this big life change was “Japan, huh? Make sure you read the fine print, you don’t want to end up in that nuclear place!” to which I would nervously laugh and cringe and admit that not only was I bound for Fukushima, but I’d actually requested to be placed here early on in the recruitment process.

Minamisoma devastation
Devastation in Minamisoma – Photo by Daisuke Tsuda/Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve long been inspired by the power of community, and people who give enough of a damn to make a difference. Minamisoma is full of these souls, from Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai, who has declared a “non-nuclear” vision of the future for the city, to the headmaster of the school I’m about to step into, to the man who founded Hustle Minamisoma – a fabulous-looking community incubator that I’m yet to properly explore.

Hell, even the guy who delivers the post and the old woman who spends hours every day in the garden opposite my new apartment are fighters. They’re all working to regroup, rebuild, and make Minamisoma what it was.

Six years on, people are starting to come back to this area and that’s one of the most exciting things about my placement at Odaka. Until now, the school has been operating out of a pre-fab building. Functional, but not very pretty.

Odaka Elementary School
The brand new school awaits.

However, a beautiful new building has been constructed to replace the one that was destroyed in the tsunami; so my first day at school will also be the teachers’ first day, as well as the students’.

I feel so incredibly honoured to be joining at such a significant milestone in Odaka and Minamisoma’s healing journey. It’s my intention while I’m here to volunteer and get stuck in as much as I can, wherever I can, and as far as my basic Japanese will let me.

Of course, before I left, people were naturally curious about the R-word: radiation. I fielded a lot of questions and jokes about sprouting extra arms or glowing green. The truth is far less exciting. The background radiation for Minamisoma is only slightly above normal background levels (which in Japan tend to be low anyway), even though it’s only 25km north of the Fukushima Daichii plant.

In fact, one year living in Minamisoma is equivalent to getting a pelvic xray. Now don’t get me wrong, there are still places not too far away where it’s probably unwise to linger, but Minamisoma itself is perfectly safe.

I’m barely two weeks into my Japanese adventure and there’s so much more to do and explore. But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I have my first day at school to prepare for.

Photo of ris Riddell
On top of the world – Iris takes five while tramping the Routeburn Track.


Tsunami photo credit link here.


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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

5 thoughts on “A year in Fukushima

  • April 5, 2017 at 4:13 am

    Thumbs up for Iris, we wish you good health and lots of energy for all your plans and much fun with your students!!! You´ll do great and you´ll be a very conscientious teacher!!!!! So: all the best and good luck! Mecki and Uli

  • April 5, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    Iris, great to read about your day-to-day activities and challenges, and the big picture stuff too. Look forward to more.

    Cheers Pam & Dave

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  • April 5, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    Seemed like a a truly rewarding endeavor. I was wondering if I can join you in your adventure by being an assistant language teacher as well. I currently live in odaka and i have seen how the place had transformed from a ghost town to radiant town once again. People have really gone a long way to rise from the ashes. And i find it fulfilling to be shaping the young who will the future of the town..


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