Japanese exchange students travel to GJ despite disaster

An earthquake and devastating tsunami was almost enough to get them to cancel their trip to Grand Junction, but concerns over a possible fallout from a nuclear power plant back home in Japan was enough to get them to leave.

Even if their initial reason for coming to Grand Junction was to learn English, that’s the real reason why 10 Japanese high school students left the country and flew into Grand Junction Regional Airport on Saturday after a grueling 20-hour trip.

Their hometown, Fukushima, is about 40 miles northwest of a nuclear power complex that Japanese officials are trying to cool down after a devastating earthquake shook northern Japan on March 11.

The students, who range in ages from 15 to 18, were scheduled to visit Grand Junction as part of a 10-day exchange program arranged by West River Academy, which for the past 10 years has brought Japanese students here to attend the Christian Community Schools in Clifton and Mesa State College.

Until the latest crop of students left Japan early Friday, academy founder Kiyo Nishikawa wasn’t sure they actually were coming.

“A few parents thought they shouldn’t go on the trip under the circumstances, but some teachers convinced them that probably it would be a good idea because of the nuclear threat,” Nishikawa said. “They also have long lines for food there. They’re allowed two pieces of bread per person, so if it’s a family of five, they all have to stand in line.”

To make matters worse, the Associated Press reported Sunday that there are renewed concerns of contaminated food and water, adding that Japanese officials found high levels of iodine in local vegetables, while dangerous levels of cesium, a radioactive isotope, has turned up in some water supplies.

Each student had their own story to tell about the quake and its aftermath. Nishikawa, who said the students’ hometown was far enough inland to not be affected by the tsunami, translated for one of the students, Seiko Kanai:

“The earthquake hit the area around 2:50 p.m. on March 11, and immediately the building she was in shook so hard that the roof came off. She couldn’t use the phone, so she was taken to the place where people had to be gathering for safety. She was with her friends, and then her mom finally showed up.”

Nishikawa said each student’s home had varying levels of damage, but most were still livable. Still, food, water and heating oil have been scarce since the quake hit.

The students are scheduled to stay in Grand Junction until March 29. While here, they’ll learn English and the American way of life, which will include seeing the sights around the Western Slope.

“The (Japanese) school they are going to is now a shelter and some families are still there in the school,” Nishikawa said. “So they’re wondering if there’s going to be any school when they get back.”


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