An Abandoned Place: An Interview with Kevin Maher from ELC

Text:Senior UM Reporter Sally Liang │ Photo:UM Reporter Elcus Chan, with some provided by the interviewee

Scattered tiles, dilapidated houses that have become raccoons’ habitats, the square formerly used for recreation but now overrun by weeds… ‘Where time stops, everything is frozen in that very moment.’ says Kevin Maher, a Senior Instructor in the English Language Centre (ELC). On 11 March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan, triggering a massive tsunami. After being affected by the earthquake, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant exploded and caused nuclear leakage. In June 2018, Kevin Maher finally set foot on the desolate land.

Kevin with the radiometer

Back to Fukushima

Kevin Maher is from the United States. He has 23 years of teaching experience. He is currently teaching courses in public speaking, creative writing and interactive English at UM. Before joining UM in 2013, he taught in South Korea and Japan. On the day of the earthquake, Kevin was teaching in Niigata, about 90 miles from Fukushima. Although the tsunami and the nuclear leak occurred in Fukushima, the aftershocks spilled over into Niigata. ‘Everybody was in a panic because they didn’t know if a bigger earthquake was coming. The radioactive substances were being released into the air and they could be carried by wind to affect the city I was in.’ Kevin says. ‘I lived in Japan for six years, and I shared the same experience with the Japanese people. So even though I am a foreigner, emotionally I am no less attached to the city than the Japanese residents who were born there.’ Over the past eight years since the earthquake, Kevin has watched videos of the disaster on various news channels and websites, collected books about the event, and constantly wondered what has since happened to the people there.

As the radiation level in Fukushima gradually decreased, the Japanese government began to open up the Fukushima and surrounding areas for cleanup and disaster relief. Fortunately, Kevin Maher received the help from a local Japanese activist. ‘They help people like me who want to visit Fukushima after the disaster to obtain special permission to go there.’

He admitted that it was pretty scary to enter that area, ‘because once you enter the area, you’re exposed to radiation all the time, and the radiometer you have on you reminds you of that constantly, along with the ones which you could see everywhere in the disaster area,’ he says.

Left:The newspaper published on the day of the disaster
Right:The convenience store looks like it’s just been flooded

The Ruins

Because of the radiation, few people are allowed to enter the area. Even construction workers need special permission. ‘So it’s not like other earthquake-hit areas.’ says Kevin, ‘I used to think that if a city was damaged by a natural disaster, it would soon be restored. But here, even after eight years, everything looks like it has just been destroyed. The entire area is not safe for human habitation, and is barely safe even for short visits,’ says Kevin.

However, the thoughtfulness and humanity of the Japanese were vividly displayed during the disaster. ‘They try to collect all kinds of remaining stuff from the disaster area, such as children’s schoolbags, dolls and so on, and then ship them to a local specialized building to make it easier for people to claim their property or the property of the ones they lost,’ he recalls. The gravestones that were washed away by the flood were also found and collected for people to reclaim them.

Left:A broken house
Right:Dolls collected from the disaster-hit area waiting to be claimed

The People

Similar to the Chinese people, the Japanese people have a strong attachment to their motherland and ancestors. On the periphery of the high-radiation zone, many people are still risking their lives to return to their homes as some of the towns re-open for habitation. ‘It was a restaurant that reopened in 2017. The shopkeeper has been living in another place for the past six years and now he finally has the chance to return to his native land. When I talked to people like him, they told me that the young people might not come back. But the older generation still want to return, because they say death is the destination of every life, so there is no need to over-worry about nuclear radiation. They just want to go home. That sushi restaurant is a family business that has existed for over a century. They see their former life in their hometown as an obligation and responsibility to serve their community and the land, so they will always go back.’ Kevin says with admiration.

Back in those days when he was frightened by the aftershocks in Japan, Kevin felt amazed at the calm and resilient side of the Japanese people when they are faced with something tragic. When he heard his former Japanese colleagues talking about losing their homes and property because of the tsunami and nuclear radiation, he was always amazed at the way their sadness was tempered with a smile. ‘If I were living in the United States, people would be watching the news and rebuilding every day after such a major disaster. But in Japan, as I was still reeling from the shock and sense of insecurity caused by the earthquake, wondering what would be a safe place to hide in case of another disaster, my Japanese colleagues were already moving on with their lives.’

When the tsunami hit Fukushima, like a monster swallowing down cars and buildings, flattened streets and districts and left nothing but massy ruins. This is where the time froze at 2:52 pm, and newspapers are still lying around with the date “11 March 2011” forever. People got lost and the family lost their loved ones. Even so, the Japanese would still keep their daily routines and treats their tragic with respect and positivity.

Kevin and the books he has collected about the disaster