The JET “Martyrs” and the Japanese Government

Taniguchi Tomohiko, former deputy press secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discusses the international respect for Japan after the disaster that claimed so many lives and laments the laggardly response of a Japanese government that seems content to allow this esteem to go to waste.

Taniguchi Tomohiko, former deputy press secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discusses the international respect for Japan after the disaster that claimed so many lives and laments the laggardly response of a Japanese government that seems content to allow this esteem to go to waste.

Honoring Two Young Americans Who Lost Their Lives in the Tsunami

Ishinomaki and Rikuzentakata were among the areas that bore the brunt of the worst devastation when the tsunami hit. Among those who lost their lives on March 11 were two young people working on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program, a government scheme that hires young people from overseas to come to Japan to help with foreign language teaching and other international activities.

The two American participants on the program who lost their lives in the disaster were Taylor Anderson of Richmond, Virginia, who was assigned to a school in Ishinomaki, and Montgomery Dickson of Anchorage, Alaska, who was working at a school in Rikuzentakata. By all accounts, both risked their own safety to make sure that their students were evacuated to safety. It is terrible to think that the spirit of self-sacrifice and dedication of these two young people may have caused their deaths.

The JET program was launched in 1987 at a time of trade tensions between Japan and the United States. One of the aims of the program was to deepen understanding of Japan among young Americans. It went on to become one of the jewels in the crown of Japanese diplomacy. One of the most praiseworthy aspects of the program is the fact that it assigns the bulk of its young workers not to Japan’s shining cosmopolitan cities but to little-known rural areas, allowing young foreigners to become familiar with some of the country’s more secluded places—the “ports and harbors,” as we call them in Japanese.

Even this familiar phrase holds painful connotations after the tsunami—a word that literally means “harbor wave” in Japanese. It was precisely because these two young Americans were based in small ports and harbors on Japan’s coast that they lost their lives in the disaster.

But the future of the JET program itself should be clear under the beacon of light cast by the tragic deaths of these two young people. The program has now produced two martyrs, people who lost their lives because of their dedication to their duties. This makes me think that the last thing we should be considering now is packing up our banner and quitting.

An appalling number of people lost their lives in this disaster. The time when the catastrophe struck—2:46 pm, March 11, 2011—has become a stark division in the history of Japan, separating “before” from “after.” Moved by the extraordinary scenes of almost Biblical devastation, people from all over the world have donated aid to Japan.

In the course of the disaster, Japan has paid the highest price imaginable for the esteem it has gained along with a reputation for endurance, fortitude, and a spirit of mutual assistance. We must not allow a bungling government to adopt policies that would squander the value of this hard-earned reputation. And yet assistance for the stricken areas remains disjointed and subject to delays. If the situation continues like this for much longer, even the strong, forbearing Japanese people will lose their patience. In addition to the wreckage caused by the disaster itself, there is the ongoing crisis at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, where initial fumbles and missteps have turned a dangerous situation into a crisis of historic proportions.

This disaster cost nearly 30,000 lives, including those of the two young Americans on the JET program. The tragic loss of life has won the Japanese people the respect of the world. It is hard indeed to have to stand by and watch this precious gift sullied on a daily basis by the government’s ham-fisted response. (Written on April 15, 2011.)

In This Series
International Relations and the Earthquake Disaster
“Teflon Kan” Survives, but Will Japan? (June 29)
Japan’s “Toynbee Moment” (May 27)
Words of Encouragement from the Youth of Bamiyan (April 22)
The JET “Martyrs” and the Japanese Government (April 15)

Taniguchi Tomohiko

Taniguchi Tomohiko

Graduated from University of Tokyo. After working as editor of Nikkei Business, served as deputy press secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Has been a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Princeton and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. Now teaches at Keiō University. Publications include Tsūka moyu: en, gen, doru yūro no dōjidaishi (Currency Drama: A Contemporary History of the Yen, Yuan, Dollar, and Euro).