One year after Japan earthquake, a family that found refuge in Seattle heads home

A family prays at an event in Fukushima, Japan to commemorate the March 11, 2011 earthquake (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Shizu Ishihara is saying goodbye to Seattle.

She came here a year ago with her two young sons Eishin and Ryousei, fleeing the aftermath of 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit northeastern Japan last March.

The Tohoku earthquake, as it has since been named, triggered tsunami waves taller than 100ft, leaving more than 20,000 people dead or missing. As if that wasn’t enough, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was crippled to the point of a meltdown.

“We didn’t plan on being here this long,” Ishihara said, “it was originally for just a few months, to get away from the radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”

Ishihara actually lived about 200 miles south from Fukushima Daiichi, far enough from the epicenter that her house and neighborhood were not directly affected by the earthquake or subsequent tsunami. Some things were knocked off the walls and shelves, minor cracks here and there, but nothing more.

“I know many people suffered more–especially closer to Fukushima and the coastline,” she says. But even so, in the weeks after, she says her family lived in fear.

Ishihara’s youngest son Ryousei was 16 months old at the time, and had just started drinking baby formula. Reports were circulating that radiation from the plant had contaminated the tap water and all the stores were sold out of bottled water.

She remembers asking her friends in western Japan, even as far away as Hawaii, to ship her bottled water, “But we knew this couldn’t last much longer,” she says.

Then, Ishihara received a call from her sister in Seattle.

“She told me I should come to Seattle because it was safe,” she recalls. So on April 3rd, 2011 Ishihara and her two sons flew to Seattle, leaving her husband behind in Japan to continue working. Ishihara and her sons stayed with her sister and her family in Bellevue.

“For the first time in weeks, we could feel relieved,” said Ishihara, “I could let Eishin run around and play outside, and we didn’t need to worry about the food or water.”

The plan was to get back home to Japan before getting settled in too much, but the family’s return kept getting delayed. Initially, it was because of increasing news of radiation contamination in tea, then rice, then other food sources. Then in November, a radiation hotspot was found in a city near Ishihara’s hometown of Shirai. A task force was created to examine the area and while no major hotspots were found in Shirai, the city is still working to clean the radiation out.

But through all the waiting, Seattle ended up being more than just a place to escape to, Ishihara says: living here was a great experience, especially for her son Eishin.

To make sure he could have a smooth transition back to the public schools in Japan, Inshihara enrolled him in the Bellevue Children’s Academy (BCA) Saturday Japanese School.

BCA is one of several Japanese schools in the Pacific Northwest. In most of them, children go to an extra day of school over the weekend and take classes similar to the American schools in Japanese.  Most of the other students there are from families that are in the U.S. temporarily or families that just want their kids to grow up learning the Japanese language.

“He was very fortunate and made many friends. He also learned to speak English,” she said.

Its been a long year of worries and separation from her husband, but in a couple weeks, the family will finally go back home. Ishihara says the biggest reason she decided to go back now was because of her son Eishin, who is now in first grade.

“He was scared when the earthquake hit and he felt safe getting away,” she explains. “But he keeps telling me now that he wants to see daddy.”




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