Repairing Japan's image, one teacher at a time

09/11/2011 06:53 EDT | Updated 11/11/2011 05:12 EST

Japan is employing an unusual method in its attempt to rejuvenate its faltering international image after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the country exactly six months ago on March 11.

It comes in the form of a petite, brunette teacher from Canada: Tanya Gardecky, 25, of Aurora, Ont.

Or rather in the form of 20 foreigners from around the world who once taught English in the devastated regions and now have gone back, on Japan's dime, to view the progress for themselves.

Each was once a teacher with the government-funded JET Programme and taught in the public school system.

Months after the March 11 disaster, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a call to alumni, offering to send a limited number back to hard-hit areas where they'd worked to see the progress for themselves.

The selected alumni were required to spend no more than a week visiting the schools and reconstruction sites. Then, the Japanese government hopes, they will bring a message back to friends, family and, of course, the media.

"They want me to let everybody know that it's safe," says Gardecky. And she stresses that it is.

"It’s still safe. If you're afraid of the radiation, just don't go to that area. But still go to Japan."

Gardecky, one of two Canadians selected for the program, returned to the coastal city of Shiogama in Miyagi prefecture, where she taught at numerous elementary and junior high schools for a year ending in July, 2010.

Devastation remains

The music teacher arrived on August 22 and began a whirlwind tour of her schools and surrounding areas.

What she saw was mostly promising when considering only six months have passed. "They've obviously made a lot of progress but they still have a lot to go," she says.

At one mall in Shiogama, for example, pictures snapped days after the tsunami show the first floor windows blown out, the concrete ground ripped apart and a car embedded inside a store. Today, the exterior is fixed and flawless.

But it was on a small island of Nonoshima, population 100, where she also taught, that the devastation was still evident.

"Where houses used to be, there was a pond," she said.

Many on the island lost their homes. All of her students survived, though not all their family members did. And yet, despite the devastation, Gardecky says students appeared to be their energetic selves.

On the island, Gardecky was able to hand deliver a portion of money she'd fundraised back in Canada for Japan disaster relief, directly giving it to the principal of the Urato Junior High School to help them repair earthquake damage.

And she hopes that her presence delivered a message of its own to her students and the Japanese at large: to "let them know the rest of the world hasn't forgotten them."

It's unclear whether Gardecky's visit will help Japan recover its tourism or change the way people view the country as nuclear radiation troubles continue to plague the northeast. But at the very least it has one person vowing a return: Gardecky herself.

"The plan now is to get a job in Japan as soon as possible," says Gardecky, adding she hopes to live there for five to 10 years.

"Going back I realized how much I should be there – and not in Canada."

Japan, before and after

Scroll on the images below to see how Japan has changed in 6 months since the earthquake: