News / USA

Despite Risks, US Woman Teaches Near Japan Nuclear Meltdown

Kate O'Berg in front of one of the schools in Japan where she now teaches.(T.Banse/VOA)Kate O'Berg in front of one of the schools in Japan where she now teaches.(T.Banse/VOA)
x
Kate O'Berg in front of one of the schools in Japan where she now teaches.(T.Banse/VOA)
Kate O'Berg in front of one of the schools in Japan where she now teaches.(T.Banse/VOA)
Tom Banse
Few people would voluntarily move to a place where residents routinely scan their groceries with a Geiger counter and automated radiation monitors stand guard outside parks and schools.  

That place is Minamisoma, Japan, a city 25 kilometers away from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear reactors which melted down last year.

But for Kate O'Berg, 23-year-old art instructor from Pendleton, Oregon, working in this shaken city has been the realization of a dream. The young American is helping people in her hometown's sister city to rebuild their lives. 
In one district of Minamisoma, which was just recently removed from the nuclear no-go zone, signs of the earthquake and tsunami are still very apparent. (T. Banse/VOA)In one district of Minamisoma, which was just recently removed from the nuclear no-go zone, signs of the earthquake and tsunami are still very apparent. (T. Banse/VOA)
x
In one district of Minamisoma, which was just recently removed from the nuclear no-go zone, signs of the earthquake and tsunami are still very apparent. (T. Banse/VOA)
In one district of Minamisoma, which was just recently removed from the nuclear no-go zone, signs of the earthquake and tsunami are still very apparent. (T. Banse/VOA)

Horses were the original connection that drew Minamisoma and Pendleton together as sister cities: samurai horsemanship in the coastal Japanese town and a famous rodeo - the Pendleton Round-Up - in northeast Oregon.

So when a desperate plea from the mayor of Minamisoma went viral on YouTube after last year's nuclear meltdown, the people of Pendleton heard the message loud and clear. Financial support followed, but it took a while for many volunteers to hazard a trip to this region on the border of the nuclear no-go zone.

O'Berg had been to Minamisoma years before as a high school exchange student.  She went back again briefly last year to help with disaster cleanup. Then, right after Christmas, came a job offer from the city and school system of Minamisoma.

O'Berg had one day to decide if she wanted to leave her post with the Pendleton Center for the Arts and move to the Japanese disaster zone to teach English. She would also be the city's part-time cultural ambassador.  

"I just lit up," O'Berg says. "I said, 'I'll come back. I'll teach here, I'll teach here. I don't have a degree, but I'll do it.'"
Radiation monitors stand outside schools and parks in Fukushima Prefecture. (T. Banse/VOA)Radiation monitors stand outside schools and parks in Fukushima Prefecture. (T. Banse/VOA)
x
Radiation monitors stand outside schools and parks in Fukushima Prefecture. (T. Banse/VOA)
Radiation monitors stand outside schools and parks in Fukushima Prefecture. (T. Banse/VOA)

Growing up downriver from a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear facility, one of America's biggest radioactive waste cleanup projects, taught O'Berg about living with radiation risk and uncertainty.

She brought a hand-held Geiger counter to Japan and uses it to scan her groceries before putting them away in her apartment's tiny kitchen. Knowing the risks, O'Berg still opted to come to Japan.

"There definitely were considerations of my own health," she says. "My viewpoint on it is that a lot of people get cancer and just can't help it. But I'm doing what I want to do and I'm helping other people. People risk their lives all the time to help others."

O’Berg assesses her personal risk as minimal at this point.  On a bike ride, she explains why she's so drawn to rural Japan.

There's traffic out and about, a sign that Minamisoma's population is gradually rebounding. More than 600 people drowned here in the tsunami of March 2011.

Afterwards, the majority of town residents temporarily evacuated to get farther away from the nuclear meltdown at the damaged Fukushima reactors nearby.

Passing the junior high school, O'Berg says half-empty classrooms are beginning to fill back up with students. The topsoil on the playing field was scraped off and replaced with clean dirt. 
Volunteers deliver food and good cheer at a temporary housing complex in Japan. (Kate O'Berg)Volunteers deliver food and good cheer at a temporary housing complex in Japan. (Kate O'Berg)
x
Volunteers deliver food and good cheer at a temporary housing complex in Japan. (Kate O'Berg)
Volunteers deliver food and good cheer at a temporary housing complex in Japan. (Kate O'Berg)

Meanwhile, thousands of local people are still living in crowded emergency housing blocs. O'Berg comes to a stop at a complex that resembles a self-storage facility, but with more windows.

On weekends, she regularly joins volunteers who deliver food and good cheer to these small prefab units.

"It's normally an elderly citizen who can't get to the store," she says. "We share our smiling faces and wheelbarrow the food to their home for them and bring it inside their house. It's definitely a really amazing feeling to help someone like that."

O'Berg is the only Oregonian living full-time in Minamisoma. A handful of other volunteers from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia make periodic visits to lend a hand with food distribution and tsunami cleanup.

"I'm told that I'm such a brave person for coming here," O'Berg says. "But it's something I wanted to do so I don't feel that I am any braver than someone living here."

Soon, the sister city link will go in the other direction. Six middle and high school students from Minamisoma will fly to Pendleton.  Their two-week friendship visit is timed to coincide with the Pendleton Round-Up’s famous rodeo.

You May Like

HRW: Egypt's Trial of Morsi ‘Badly Flawed’

Human Rights Watch says former Egypt leader's detention without charge for more than three weeks after his removal from office violated Egyptian law; government rejects criticism More

Photogallery Lancet Report Calls for Major Investment in Surgery

In its report published by The Lancet, panel of experts says people are dying from conditions easily treated in the operating room such as hernia, appendicitis, obstructed labor, and serious fractures More

Music Industry Under Sway of Digital Revolution

Millions of people in every corner of the Earth now can enjoy a vast variety and quantity of music in a way that has never before been possible More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Saidi salah from: sidi khaled Algeria
June 19, 2012 2:11 PM
"what brave this girl is!!! and we can say also " what adventurous is this girl" . In otherwords: she is brave if she takes all the precaution, and she is such advanterous idiot if she doesn't do so.

by: Orhan from: Istanbul,Turkey
June 18, 2012 7:51 AM
Thanks to the angels like Kate, the pains of this calamity will certainly ease off. International community should be thankful to those who risk their lives fearlessly in order to tend to people who are solely in need of love and care.

by: Bojangles from: Fall out zone
June 17, 2012 8:35 PM
There are hundreds of teachers in the fall out zone. Residents do not rountinely scan their groceries with a geiger counter and even if they did that would be pretty pointless. Those solar powered radiation monitors that sit outside schools are wasteful government spending. They don't "stand guard", they just measure the radiation in that particular spot. Anyway, good on ya for helping out the evacuees.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs