Quake, tsunami a year ago refreshed Kentuckian's memories of time in Japan

Twenty-three years old and eager to get out of my hometown, I left Lexington for Japan. In the summer of 1994, I took a job teaching English in Ishikawa, a small town surrounded by rice fields and forested hills in Fukushima Prefecture, about 100 miles north of Tokyo.

The students were on vacation when I arrived. One humid afternoon, I was studying Japanese at my desk in Ishikawa Junior High School when I heard singing coming from what I'd thought was an empty hallway.

I followed the sound to the school's music room, where I found a group of boys and girls in identical maroon shorts and T-shirts taking direction from a thin, intense man in a tie and tennis shoes. He noticed me and, summoning his best English, said, "We are practicing school song. Do you know?"

I didn't. He raised his hands and conducted the students to harmonize through a song with this refrain, as translated by a teacher who spoke English:

Koko ni sodatsu (In this place, we grow up)

Koko ni manabu (In this place, we learn)

Koko ni ikiru (In this place, we live)

Having just left the place I'd grown up, I wasn't interested in anthems that espoused loyalty to place and community. If anything, I wanted to subvert the traditional Japanese value espoused in that school song — that a child's obligation to a group (be it family, school or hometown) superseded obligation to oneself.

The Japanese government was seemingly on my side. Lacking much diversity, Japan had to import it like oil or coffee if the nation wanted to keep pace in a globalizing economy. That's what led to the creation of the Japan Exchange and Teaching, or JET, Program, which was how the people of Ishikawa wound up with me: a 6-3, blue-eyed Kentuckian. In America, I felt like the opposite of diversity; in Ishikawa, I was diversity.

People there welcomed my wife (who also is from Kentucky) and me.

Many of the children in this town of about 20,000 grew up working on their families' farms or in their parents' shops. Some of these families kept the traditional custom of grooming and/or requiring their eldest son or daughter to take over the family business. One of these obliged sons was my friend Yasu.

Also 6-3, Yasu played with me in an evening basketball league, and he had a fierce love for hoops. Yasu spoke some English and once told me during a game that the guy guarding me "have chicken heart. Give him little pushing. Just a little rough style. Can beat every time." (He was right.) Yasu could have had a career as a basketball coach in a high school or college, but he'd have had to leave Ishikawa. That would have deeply disappointed his parents, who ran a fishing shop. Yasu stayed.

His cousin was a young woman named Kumiko. Her parents raised her to work hard, be strong and capable — and understand her obligation to the family. Their expectation was that Kumiko, as eldest daughter in a family with no sons, would take over her parents' clothing store when she came of age.

This was Kumiko's plan, too, for a while. Then Kumiko, who had studied English in college, met a charming American boy from Toledo, Ohio, who was teaching English in a neighboring town. They fell in love, which wasn't a problem for her parents; they liked him. They wanted their daughter to be happy. However, tradition dictated that the husband of a first daughter was to join his wife in her parents' house and assume a role in her family's business.

The boy from Toledo wasn't going to live in Fukushima the rest of his life. His future was in America. Kumiko decided hers was, too. She left — and she and her parents stopped speaking.

I was never held to the same standards of social obligation to which the Japanese hold themselves (my most meager efforts to speak Japanese, for example, were greeted as a flattering triumph). While in Ishikawa, I learned the joys of sharing a laugh with someone who didn't speak English, and of having conversations that easily slipped from one language to the other, depending on which one presented the easiest route to communication, as in, "Every time I go to karaoke, minna-san ga, 'Elvis Presley song wo utatte kudasai!'"

After three years in Ishikawa, I felt ready to leave. At my farewell ceremony, I gave a goodbye speech to an all-school assembly in passable Japanese, and when the students sang the school song, I cried in spite of myself.

Over the years, my wife and I moved around, had three children and lost touch with our friends from Ishikawa. My memories of the place seemed to fade and lose significance. That changed exactly one year ago.

March 11, 2011, was a Friday. That morning, Ishikawa Junior High held a graduation ceremony for the ninth grade. Then, at 2:46 p.m., the ground began to shake. Earthquakes there usually last a few seconds, but this one lasted minutes and shook the building violently. Students and teachers ran outside. They could hear glass shattering and furniture falling inside the school. Before long, word arrived that a tsunami had wiped away whole towns on the seaside; hundreds of refugees would be coming to Ishikawa. Then came the announcement of a radiation leak at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 35 miles away.

Soon, the people of Ishikawa found themselves between the Japanese government's mandatory evacuation zone of 12 miles and the U.S. government's recommended evacuation zone of 50 miles. Ishikawa had two JET English teachers at the time. One stayed, one left.

I don't know what I would have done.

From 6,000 miles away, I turned to Facebook and email to find out the state of my friends and my town. It was again my town. Everyone I knew was OK, and overall, Ishikawa sustained less damage than many other towns. Some of the roads into and out of town suffered cracks but were repaired. Also, according to the detectors that now stand outside the schools, Ishikawa's radiation levels have stayed in safe territory. Something else happened, too: People helped one another; donating food and clothing and working to prepare public buildings to house folks who'd lost everything.

Kumiko lives in Chicago with her husband and two kids. When she heard about the quake, she called her parents right away. "I can't explain how happy I was when I got to talk to my parents, who I barely spoke to for years. Now we talk." She has joined numerous relief efforts and helped raise thousands of dollars for aid to her home region.

Yasu is married now, with a 2-year-old daughter, and they all live in the house where he grew up. After 3/11, Yasu said they were scared, and he wanted to move everyone out of Fukushima; the radiation crisis had essentially freed him of his obligation to the place. After tearful conversations with his family about what to do, he chose to stay. Via email, he wrote that overall, "Our life is normal again. We were very lucky."

My family and I have settled in Louisville. I miss traveling the world, but having done it, I now find deep satisfaction in being close to my hometown, my parents and people I've known since childhood. What I once defined as obligation I now see as commitment and connection.

Still, I think about Ishikawa all the time and am rooting for the people there. I'm grateful to them for sharing their hometown with me and, like them, I will always think of Ishikawa as a place where I lived and learned and grew up.