OTSUCHI, Japan — The week before classes resumed, the middle school’s gymnasium was still a makeshift morgue. But the bodies were removed and the floor disinfected, so Kirikiri Middle School could welcome back students for the first time since the tsunami swept away much of this port town.
Nagayoshi Ono, a principal, says the students who died would “want us to persevere.”
“In this disaster, we lost many precious things,” said Nagayoshi Ono, the principal of one of the two schools that have shared the building since Kirikiri reopened two weeks ago, because it is Otsuchi’s sole surviving middle school. “We face a test like a nation at war, and how we respond to this test is up to us.”
Two months after an earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan’s northern coastline, survivors are moving to pick up the pieces. As in many hard-hit areas, teachers and students at this tiny middle school seem to share a conviction that by seeking to resume pre-disaster routines, they can move their devastated communities a step closer toward healing.
This quest to regain normalcy comes in the face of levels of adversity not seen here since the dark days after World War II.
Students walk or take buses to school across plains of flattened rubble, where neighborhoods once stood. They arrive at a building where 300 students must fit into space built for a third that number. Most sports have been canceled because the school’s playing field is being filled with prefabricated apartments for some of Otsuchi’s thousands of newly homeless. Half of the students live in refugee shelters, and many lost one or both parents.
Then there are the two eighth-grade girls who did not survive on March 11, when the earthquake and tsunami left more than 1,600 people dead or missing in this town of 15,000. Tiny bouquets of small blue flowers were set on their empty desks.
“I feel they are here with us, somewhere,” said Mr. Ono, 55, the principal of Otsuchi Middle School, whose students are now being bused across a mountain to Kirikiri after the tsunami gutted their school. “They want us to persevere.”
Despite the sorrow and loss, Mr. Ono and the others seem determined to maintain an almost defiant cheerfulness. As busloads of Otsuchi Middle School’s students arrived at Kirikiri on a recent morning, Mr. Ono and a half-dozen teachers stood at the entrance, welcoming students with loud greetings of “Good morning!” The students bowed back, some smiling bashfully or trading quick jokes with teachers.
Throughout the day, teachers constantly urged students to smile and “persevere” — or “ganbaru,” a word frequently heard in Japan these days.
The teachers said that while the school was now far from an ideal learning environment, it was important to bring the children back. They said they wanted school to offer students an escape from the stresses of living in refugee shelters, and a chance to share with peers their experiences during the disaster.
“These are students who have lost homes and parents,” said Noriko Sasaki, 36, a seventh-grade English teacher, who greeted students. “School allows them to come back to something familiar and safe.”
Many students agreed.
“I usually don’t like school, but I wanted to come this time to talk about where we were during the tsunami,” said Kiyoshi Kimura, 14, an eighth grader who said his house had been destroyed and several relatives killed.
He shared his memories of the tsunami almost eagerly with classmates in a narrow hallway.
“It was more like an approaching cloud than a wall of water,” he exclaimed, referring to the dust the waves kicked up as they toppled buildings in their path.
Kota Iwai, 14, was a classmate of one of the girls who was killed. While he was sad about her death, he was happy to get away from the refugee shelter in an elementary school gymnasium where he and his family have slept since losing their home.
“I haven’t seen my friends since the tsunami,” he said. “We were all scattered.”
Many teachers said they hoped reopening the school would be therapeutic not only for the students, but also for the town. A kind of stunned silence seems to linger over Otsuchi, where the tsunami destroyed more than half of the town and killed the mayor.
“The sight of children going to school is one small step toward bringing the town back to normal,” said Gouei Kanno, 38, who teaches seventh-grade social studies.
Mr. Kanno and other teachers said one of the biggest challenges was watching for signs of emotional difficulties among students. Teachers said they received two hours of training on post-traumatic stress and identifying symptoms, including overly excited talking and angry outbursts.
“We have our antennae out,” said Mr. Kanno, whose own house survived because he lives inland.
Another concern was whether students from Otsuchi Middle School, which was in a more industrial part of the town, would get along with those at Kirikiri, a sleepy fishing neighborhood. To prevent fights or bullying, a constant problem at Japanese schools, the two schools will have separate classes.
Still, to break the ice and create an environment of mutual support for the traumatized children, the schools asked the students to organize their own opening ceremony. The Japanese-style cheerleading squads from the two schools greeted each other in the newly disinfected gym to the boom of taiko drums.
“Welcome, welcome, Otsuchi Middle School!” bellowed the boy who led the Kirikiri squad, as he punched the air in an elaborate, pantomimed fight.
“Our school was washed away! Let’s persevere together!” the leader of the Otsuchi squad yelled in reply.
Later, Mr. Ono, the Otsuchi Middle School principal, told his students to be on their good behavior because they were sharing a crowded school. All of Kirikiri’s extra space, including the art room and library, has been converted into classrooms.
The students were lined up to massage one another’s shoulders, in a show of group support. Later in gym class, students played a game of “warm-feeling dodgeball,” in which stronger students helped weaker ones.
“Many of us lost our homes and possessions in an instant,” Megumi Nakagawa, 45, an English teacher, told the Otsuchi students. “The important thing now is taking a first step toward something brighter.”