Although Nelson’s official Japanese sister city escaped the wrath of Friday’s earthquake, a 21-member delegation set to leave Tuesday for Izushi has cancelled its trip.
“It’s very disappointing,” says Bruce Walgren, president of the Izushi Friendship Society. “We’re trying to figure out what to do with the money we raised. We may send it to our society on the other side or give it to the Red Cross.”
Walgren says difficulties at Tokyo airport forced the trip’s cancellation in any event, but problems with the country’s nuclear power plant only reinforced their decision.
“All the chaperons made the call that we didn’t want to put our children under pressure like that,” he says. “We’re taking care of a lot of other people’s kids.”
Due in part to the H1N1 scare, it’s been a couple of years since Nelson sent a delegation to Izushi, a community on an eastern peninsula of Honshu, the country’s largest island. However, several groups from Izushi have come here in that time, including one last summer.
The current Nelson group included 16 students in Grades 8, 10, 11, and 12, and five adult chaperons, including Walgren and his wife Karen. They expected to fly to Tokyo yesterday, stay a couple of days, and then travel by bullet train and bus to Izushi, where they would be billeted.
When Walgren first contacted his counterparts, they downplayed the quake: “They said ‘Yes, we feel the shaking, but it’s not too bad.’ It’s just the Japanese culture not to lose face by saying you shouldn’t come.
“When we said we wouldn’t be able to make it, of course they were very sad, but they don’t want to put anyone in danger. They totally understand.”
Walgren says as much as everyone wanted to go, he’s thankful they weren’t in Japan when the quake hit.
“We would have been in a safe area, but the concern from all the parents on the Nelson end, as soon as the nuclear power plants are in danger, no one wants to be around,” he says. “It’s devastating for the whole country, never mind a small area.”
Walgren, who has been to Japan twice before, says he has been glued to TV coverage of the quake. He hopes they can try again to go next year.
June Spearman, who was organizing the tour, says immediately after the quake, she emailed her counterpart who responded that while they felt the shaking and there was a bit of water damage, everyone was fine.
“There’s no damage in the Izushi peninsula she’s aware of,” Spearman says. But with the Walgrens, she decided to pull the plug on the trip at 5:30 Friday afternoon.
“I saw news [footage] of other schools scrambling to get out,” she says. “How could I possibly send 13 and 14 year olds into that situation? And how could I expect our friends in Japan to show 21 people around and have a fun, exciting time when the whole country is in disaster mode?”
Spearman says it wasn’t a hard decision at the time, but the next day they had to deal with the disappointment. She’s thankful they hadn’t already departed.
“At least they’re here safe,” she says. “How could we have dealt with getting 21 people home from Tokyo if they landed at Narita [airport] and been stuck there for four days? It’s a blessing for us. It’s horrible for them.”