Five years after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake struck Tohoku, one key group from the international community is remembered for its humanitarian impact and key role in forging the strong U.S.-Japan bond that continues today.
The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program is an initiative sponsored by the Japanese government that aims to enhance foreign language education and promote international exchange at the local level.
On March 11, Sasakawa USA and the JET Alumni Association of Washington, D.C. co-hosted “The Role of JET Alumni in U.S.-Japan Cooperation: A Tohoku Tomo film screening and panel discussion.” Joining the panel discussion were Matthew Fuller, a JET alumnus and former Foreign Service Officer who was Special Assistant to U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos, at the time of the earthquake; and Suzanne Basalla, the Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of the DC Office of U.S.-Japan Council who was the former Senior Advisor to Ambassador Roos at the time.
The tragedy of the March 11, 2011 disaster required Embassy staff to pool many resources, Fuller noted, including relying on JETs stationed in small communities for their networks and knowledge of the area.
In that way, the disaster showed the strength of the JET Program and the relationships forged through it, said Fuller, who worked in Aichi-ken from 1997-99 while he was in the program. Referencing those bonds found all throughout Japan, he referred to the program as “probably the greatest investment the Japanese government has ever made.”
Now that many JET alumni have solidified their careers and reached positions from which they can make an impact, he said, “now is a critical time for the JET Program.”
The event continued with a special screening of Tohoku Tomo 東北友, introduced at the event by Director/Producer Wesley Julian, whose latest project is called The 113 Project. The documentary recounts the stories of a handful of individuals in the international community — several who are JET alums — who found ways to help devastated areas of Japan after the disaster. Julian also is an alumnus of JET who served in Miyagi-ken from 2008-10.
Several additional special guests joined a reception after the film. The Hon. Tamaki Tsukada, Minister of Communications and Cultural Affairs with the Embassy of Japan, said the bonds formed through the JET Program have been “a treasure” to the U.S.-Japan relationship as a whole.
He provided some figures on the program, saying there have been more than 30,000 Americans who have participated in JET since its inception nearly 30 years ago, in 1987. After the earthquake and tsunami, he said, those alumni organized to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars that went toward disaster relief.
The family members of two JETs who lost their lives in the disaster also spoke at the reception, expressing their gratitude for continued support from the JET community.
Andy Anderson, Chairperson of The Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund which was created in honor of his daughter who died in the disaster, said he is happy to hear that the JET Program likely will be increasing its numbers again in the coming years.
“I think that’s a real testament to what you all have done,” he said.
Shelley Fredrickson, Founder of The Montgomery Dickson Cultural Fund, established in honor of her brother who died in the disaster, said seeing the continued involvement of JET alumni in events such as these makes her feel “very encouraged.”
She called on people at the event to not forget about the smaller cities that were devastated in the disaster — cities like Rikuzentakata, where “Monty” served while a JET.
“It’s really important to keep media attention on that town,” she said. “The small towns don’t get as much attention. They were some of the hardest hit.”
Photos by Joy Asico