The ‘Ambassador’

By Guadalupe González

“There is one story I like to tell about how amazing, the reason why I love Fukushima. It’s a story that happened to me on March 12 of 2011, just one day after the accidents.”

It’s the last day of the fifth Fukushima Ambassadors Program, and William McMichael is exhausted. During this interview, it is hard for him to concentrate and he keeps trying to clarify what he is saying. He is running on a few hours of sleep. The past two weeks he has been escorting us around Fukushima Prefecture, taking us to see bags full of contaminated soil piled on fenced-off lots, to see how food is scanned for radiation, to meet a peach farmer who struggled to sell his crop after the disaster, and talk to a former TEPCO executive who is now encouraging young people to learn about green energy. He organized for us to meet with people who are still living in temporary housing. He served as tour guide and translator. He arranged all our lodging and meals, even accommodated vegetarian diets.

He manifests the whole program. And he does it with passion because he loves Fukushima.

“At the time my oldest son was only two. And we had no idea, you know, the larger earthquake was going to be centered of the coast of Fukushima, so we weren’t prepared for it at all. Our fridge was actually empty. And we didn’t have any food. And he was stressed out, and we were stressed out. So we decided to walk around our neighborhood looking for any supermarkets that might be open. And, unfortunately, because of the earthquake damage a lot of them were closed except for one small market. And actually it was a little damaged, its windows were broken, but we can tell it was open. So we went in, and then we realized we went in the wrong way. We actually went in through the back entrance. So we tried to go back in the front and to go in the right way and realized there was a huge line up just to get in the supermarket. And we were like, oh crap, so we tried to go to the end of the line, and they were like, ‘No, don’t worry about it, you have a little boy you should go first.’ And they let us go first. Which is an amazing gesture of solidarity and kindness by the people of Fukushima.

“But then we went into the supermarket and we picked the milk and we picked all this candy that our son loves and we tried to pay for it, and the cash register wouldn’t take our money. He claimed the electricity wasn’t working but we could tell it was because obviously the place was lit, all the fridges were running, everything was running fine. And then he said that, ‘These are hard times for everybody just come back and pay when you can, when life is back to normal. Just take this receipt, jot down your name here, that’s all we need. And just come back whenever you can.’ ”

He takes a deep sigh.

“It was just…we were just… you know, blown away by this gesture and kindness shown by the community of Fukushima, and I think it’s a story I like to tell when I explain why I love this place so much.”

Originally from Vancouver, Canada, McMichael and his wife have been living in Fukushima since 2007. McMichael speaks Japanese and English fluently. His mother is Japanese, and he lived in Japan as a child and later in college as a study abroad student. His wife is Japanese and both their children were born in Fukushima.

He promised his wife they would live here for only a year, but they fell in love with Fukushima, he said. Especially during their first year as they tried to adjust to life in Japan, he said they met many amazing people who helped them settle in.

“So, when March 11 happened, the first thing that ran through my mind wasn’t anything about being afraid of the situation or be terrified of the nuclear explosion—it wasn’t anything like that,” he recounts.

“The first thing that ran in my mind was I knew this was my chance to give back and repay the kindness that Fukushima has shown towards me and my family, especially the first few years.”

Now, he is using his skills and network he made as a volunteer first responder following the disaster to help rebuild the image of the prefecture, and with much help from Fukushima University students. They are his entourage who accompany the entire program. On this tour there were about 50 students who helped translate, entertain, and offered their insight of the disaster.

“I think the most amazing thing for me, personally, possibly because of my job, has been the growth our students have shown, especially those students that were at our University at the time of our accident,” he said.

Prior to the disaster, McMichael said graduates would seek jobs in the larger cities like Tokyo or Sendai City.

“But after the accidents, the majority of our students, we noticed, that a lot of them, a majority of them wanted to remain in Fukushima and remain to be a part of these recovery efforts,” he said. “And just that change in attitude, and the commitment that they show to the cause has been truly inspirational and what motivates me.”