WKU grad working in Japanese radiation area

Lauren Arnold

Radiation is still a major concern for authorities in Japan more than six months after the country’s nuclear disaster, but WKU graduate Adrienne Ledbetter says she isn’t concerned about the health risks involved while she works in Japan.

Ledbetter, who is an Auburn native, is an assistant language teacher in Shizuoka, Japan, a city of about 750,000 located between Tokyo and Osaka, that was affected by the radiation.

Months before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast coast and sent the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into a meltdown, Ledbetter had applied for a teaching position through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, she said in an interview with the Herald via Skype.

According to its website, the JET Program combines initiatives to “help enhance internationalization in Japan” by promoting international relations between Japan and other countries.

Participants in the program are hired by local authorities and organizations in Japan.

The interviews were held in February, but many people withdrew from the program after news broke about the disaster, Ledbetter said.

She learned in May that she had earned a spot as an assistant language teacher and was told in June she would be working in a radiation area.

She said that leaving the program wasn’t an option for her.

“After I did a little bit of soul-searching, I was like, these kids need me,” she said.

Ledbetter left for Shizuoka on July 30, putting her master’s degree on hold indefinitely.

She can participate in the JET Program for a maximum of five years, but Ledbetter said she hasn’t made any decisions about how long she’s going to stay.

Shizuoka has been deeply wounded by the nuclear disaster, which caused higher than normal levels of radiation in its tea – the city’s main export, Ledbetter said.

“It’s such a low level it couldn’t really hurt people, but it caused such a panic that exports from this area were banned,” she said.

That has put a lot of strain on local farmers, whose incomes were primarily earned through exporting the tea, Ledbetter said.

“Basically everybody, in one fell swoop, who was farming, lost their livelihoods,” she said.

There was another “food crisis” after a possibility that cattle had eaten straw that may have been contaminated by radiation.

While Shizuoka has its fair share of problems lingering from the March 11 disaster, Ledbetter still loves teaching English to her Japanese students, ranging from seventh to ninth grade.

There is a Japanese teacher present at all times because Ledbetter isn’t allowed to be alone in a classroom with the students, as she isn’t certified as a teacher in Japan, she said.

Ledbetter said that while she is technically an assistant, she feels she has a larger role in the classroom.

“They’re my kids,” she said. “I teach them.”

Since working in the Japanese education system, Ledbetter said that she has noticed a few major differences in students in Japan and those in the United States.

“They’re middle school-aged, but children here are sheltered a lot more than American kids,” she said.

“They’re still children. They’re still innocent, and I think it’s a good thing.”

Diana Edlin, a WKU graduate and doctoral student at the University of Florida, is a close friend of Ledbetter’s.

She said Ledbetter taught English to Japanese businessmen before she was involved with the JET Program, which made the transition to teaching in a foreign country easier.

Ledbetter had been to Japan before living and working there and wanted to go back.

Bowling Green senior Andrew Frechette and Ledbetter have been in a relationship for more than seven years and have an apartment together.

Frechette said that Ledbetter takes her work very seriously.

“She’s extremely dedicated to her students,” he said.

“It’s very impressive to watch her in a classroom setting.”

Frechette said that he and his girlfriend keep in touch by using Skype every day.

He was not surprised when Ledbetter decided to go to Japan even after the nuclear disaster.

“She’s been interested in Japan since a very early age,” he said. “She picked up the language when she was younger, before we ever met. She’s built up an empathy toward Japanese people.”

Frechette said that he has had to take more responsibility of their apartment, such as paying bills and cleaning, things that Ledbetter used to do, but he still believes she made the right decision.

“I’m very proud of her decision to go, and I know she’s doing a good job over there,” he said.