18 Jun 2013

Fukushima’s two British Samurai survivors

“It was quite funny really,” says Philip Jellyman, “we only really knew something was up the next day. I suppose that’s not that good in the middle of a major nuclear incident, is it?”

Er no, I concur. Not all that good.

His colleague, Anthony Ballard, takes up the theme: “My neighbour came round and started shouting about how we had to leave. That there was this problem with the plant. But he’s – well – a bit excitable. We didn’t really think all that much of it.”

Eventually they got into the car and drove to the assembly shelter at the school. Philip says uppermost in their minds was the thought that a long day of clearing up broken windows lay ahead that Saturday, after the earthquake the previous afternoon.

However, there is one thing worse than an assembly shelter full of frightened people near to a major nuclear plant about to blow up and go into meltdown.

And that is when the shelter’s empty. The streets are empty. The town’s empty.

Both men finally, and rather suddenly, realised everyone seemed to have gone. The emergency shelter was empty.

“That’s when we realised,” says Anthony, “then I saw the head of the school dressed in full nuclear protection kit. He was shouting at us from inside a building, to get out of town – now. So we did.

“The police were cruising around in full nuclear protection, yelling at us to get out of town immediately.”

“I left with the clothes on my back,” says Philip, “and that’s not great in Japan where you can’t get stuff to fit easily. I was saved by a nice kind American chap who dropped in to our evacuation shelter one day with loads of his unwanted clothes.”

Rugby playing ‘gaijin’

Both men stayed with the ship, with the children they’d been teaching in Futaba, the tiny town of 7,000 which houses the giant Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant and its large coastal reactors, three melted down, crippled by the quake and its 50 foot tsunami.

Philip has been teaching at Futaba Minami elementary since 2009 and Anthony at the junior high since 2008.

For the past two years they’ve simply moved with the children they taught, south, to Kazo City and the district of Kesai.

Here, surrounded by a class of infants who clearly adore the large, rugby-playing ‘gaijin’ (foreign) teachers, the headteacher pays tribute to two Englishmen who could easily have left for jobs anywhere in Japan.

“They are Samurai,” laughs their boss in the head teacher’s office over coffee, “they are warriors. We appreciate very much that they stayed with us.”

Both men say it’s simple – the care deeply for the children. Philip’s friends in the Futaba rugby team begged them to continue teaching their evacuated children, somewhere, somehow.

And they still go back. Every few months they can apply for a vehicle and people permit and they revisit what remains of their rented homes, nuclear protection suits on, Geiger counter in hand.

‘It’s still lovely’

The quake took the windows and door out. Two years of lush hot summers and harsh winters have done the rest. Dogs, cats, rats, mice and spiders live where they once did.

Anthony likes to go down to the coast, perhaps half a mile from the stricken plant.

“It’s still lovely. You see – I just miss the place. The coast, the Pacific, I used to go down to the beach just north of the plant almost daily. It’s a sort of sun trap. I was going to buy land there, build a house.”

Now he looks wistfully at photos of the plant festooned with cranes as the clear-up scheduled to last at least 40 – yes 40 – years grinds on.

“It’s weird in there,” says Philip,” some areas the radiation’s really low. Then you get these hotspots for no apparent reason. You can walk across the street and the counter goes from point one or something, then suddenly the alarm set at 10 millisieverts goes off.”

Anthony shows a photo of a blue plastic-gloved hand. Taken a year ago his Geiger reading is 102 microsieverts. A chest x-ray is 0.02. At this level a change in human blood cells is readily observable.

Nature gradually reclaims Futaba. As it does Namie, Tomioka, and Okuma. Four towns close to the plant. Some 54,000 people in this zone will not return home until at least 2017 now – six years after the meltdown.

Even that seems optimistic.

Moving on

“Realistically?” asks Philip, “I don’t think I will ever go back to live there.”

He speaks for the growing realisation here. As time goes by the children move on quickly and adjust to new lives – Kazo City is soon home, not lovely little Futaba on the coast.

Working age people know there are no jobs and so no future near the stricken reactors.

And, to be brutal, the elderly are going to die before any real movement back is going to happen.

So our two teachers who stayed with their children, their people, just revisit when they can.

Anthony says: “I miss it, pure and simple. It was a lovely place. And I want to chronicle what’s happening there now.”

So back and forth they go, and back and forth to the clinic for regular radiation checks as well.

Two British teachers. Two British Samurai.

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