Sunday, October 6, 2013

This post may be referenced to for a newsletter by Japan ICU Foundation, so some of this post has text from previous posts.

A few months ago I had the privilege of interning with the Japan America Society of Southern California (JAS) and was fortunate enough to have been a part of an exchange program that brought 8 children from a children's home called Fukushima Aiikuen to California for an unforgettable 10 day exchange program.  

Fukushima Aiikuen is located just outside of the no-entry zone in Fukushima, and its children live under the enormous pressure both from the dangers of radioactive contamination that persists within the region, as well as the discrimination and hardships that all orphans face in Japanese society. For these reasons, I am unable to release any photos of the children due to privacy concerns.  

The exchange program that brought these children over was created for the purpose of granting some of these children a chance to live away from the worries they face in Fukushima for a life-changing experience in America.  During these two weeks, these children were treat as VIPs as they were able to take part in activities such as a visit to the Los Angelos Sheriffs Department to meet Sheriff Lee Baca and see a live helicopter drill by the SWAT team.  Through this tour JAS hopes to help these children see something greater than what they are restricted to as orphans in Fukushima and encourage them to aspire to goals such as pursuing a college degree. This program also seeks to inspire orphans who were not selected for this tour to achieve try harder in school since students with the highest English grades are chosen for this yearly program.

On October 2nd, I and Doug Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California traveled to Fukushima Aiikuen to meet with the children that visited California to debrief with them on their experiences and to receive their feedback to see how we can improve upon future tours.  I was very impressed with the kindness that Fuushima Aiikuen showed us during our visit.  Staff members picked us up from Fukushima city and drove us an hour to the Fukushima Aiikuen located in the mountains.  We then were greeted by the director of the facility and were reunited with the children that went on the exchange program for dinner. I also had the opportunity to share a video of the exchange program with the staff and children of the home to excite them about future tours!

A picture of myself with Yoshi Endo, the chaperone of the delegation. He is an amazingly kind-hearted man who despite being a father of 4, still dedicates his his life to being a father figure for the children of Fukushima Aiikuen. He was the absolute perfect chaperone for the delegation.

However not all aspects of this visit were so joyful. In Fukushima city I learned of the extent and dangers that the people in Fukushima Prefecture live under due to the persisting threat of radioactive particles that blanketed the region following the March 11th disasters.  Fukushima Aiikuen in particular, lies in an area where contamination levels exceed safety standards and as a result it's children are forced to stay indoors and must limit their outside exposure to below 2 hours a day.  

The approximate location of Fukushima Aiikuen.  The yellow and green boxes depict areas with unsafe levels of radioactivity.

Doug and I sat in the director's office where we learned that the radioactive particles that emit gamma radiation can be washed off surfaces and concentrate at points where radioactive activity can reach life-threatening levels.  

Doug Erber, president of Japan America Society of Southern California and the director of Fukushima Aiikuen.

Just recently, a highly radioactive pile of leaves were discovered on the grounds of the playground that occured due to this phenomena.

A photograph of the hotspot located on the premises of Fukushima Aiikuen.
Hotspots such as these still linger in and around the orphanage and are a threat that the staff members of Fukushima Aiikuen must prevent from reaching the children.  It was difficult for me to see leaves, dirt, and sand as sources of danger that could be extremely harmful were I to interact with them. The threat of radiativity was so foreign to me, even as a college student I had to constantly remind myself of the invisible threat around me. 

A diagram depicting how radioactive particles can be washed off of surfaces and concentrated at certain points.
When I tell people about the radiation contamination that exists Fukushima Aiikuen, I am often asked "why dont they just move these children to a new home?"  The reasons for this is that it is simply economically impossible for this home to pack up and abandon its facility that supports over 150 children and its corresponding staff.  The facility is huge and seems to me like an ideal children's home.  It is an incredible shame that it may need to need to be replaced in the future.

Meeting the students on the exchange program in America and again in their own home in Fukushima has opened my eyes up to the larger world that exists beyond the comfortable and supported life I live. The children and staff of Fukushima Aiikuen have live very difficult lives under their current conditions, yet they are among the most respectful and motivated people I have ever met.  In America they were always sure to show their respect and gratitude and in Fukushima they treated us as guests of honor as their way of returning the favor for their time spent in America.

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