FUKUSHIMA–Takashi Sato arrives at Onami Elementary School around 7:30 a.m., changes his navy uniform for a sky blue sweat suit, and starts his daily routine surrounded by empty classrooms and vacant hallways.
His constant smile and cheerful demeanor betray any sense of loneliness he may feel.
The 11-year-old is the only pupil at the school.
Forty-one children used to play in the yard at Onami Elementary School. But on March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, leading to meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, 57 kilometers southeast of the school.
As fears of radiation spread, the number of elementary school pupils in Fukushima Prefecture fell below 100,000, down nearly 19,000 from before the nuclear accident.
Onami Elementary School and another elementary school in the prefecture now have only one pupil.
Takashi’s school day usually starts outside, where he is greeted by his teacher, Kei Omuro, 41, and the vice principal, Kazuaki Sato, 50. The boy gleefully replies, “Good morning.”
Before his first class starts, Takashi does some exercise, such as running and skipping, on the soft new soil brought in after accumulated radioactive substances were removed.
The mountainous area where the school is located had relatively high radiation levels in Fukushima city. A schoolyard dosimeter now shows 0.3 microsievert per hour, slightly lower than in central parts of the city.
A photo of 10 smiling children, who attended the school until the 2012 academic year ended in March, hangs on the back of Takashi’s classroom.
Seven sixth-graders went on to junior high school. Two younger pupils transferred to a nearby elementary school because of the dwindling population at Onami Elementary School.
Takashi, now a sixth-grader, is the only one in the photo who remained.
When asked if he feels lonely without a classmate, he says, “I probably got used to it in about a week.”
Takashi said he makes it a rule not to say he is lonely.
“I keep it in here,” he says, holding his chest with both hands.
Takashi’s first class on April 23 is arithmetic. He and Omuro bow to each other when the class begins at 8:30 a.m.
The 60-square-meter classroom has only two desks–one for the pupil and one for the teacher–where they solve problems together. Takashi is good at arithmetic.
When Takashi appears drowsy, Omuro tells him to go to the restroom to wash his face.
“I could fall into a rut because we are alone,” Omuro says after Takashi leaves. “I make it a point not to.”
The fourth class is English, where Takashi learns how to introduce himself to a stranger.
“Hello, my name is Sato Takashi,” he says in a tense, cracking voice. “Uh. … What’s your name?”
The lesson brings out Omura’s sympathy for his young student.
“Usually, pupils practice conversations with their classmates on the same level, but Takashi has to partner with an adult,” the teacher says. “I feel sorry for him.”
Takashi’s lunch companions are also adults–Omuro, Sato and two school employees. He plays catch with Sato at lunch break.
The boy’s routine at school can take a strange turn.
At 1:30 p.m., he goes to a broadcasting booth, and speaks into a microphone to tell his nonexistent schoolmates: “Let’s start cleaning.”
He plays music and returns to his classroom to wash the floor.
He returns to the booth after 15 minutes to announce the end of the cleaning task. “Thanks for a job well done,” he tells the school.
Omuro never asks Takashi if he feels lonely.
He says he cannot forget when Takashi learned he would be the only pupil from the new academic year during the last school lunch in March.
“Takashi was visibly upset,” Omuro says, with tears in his eyes.
Masaaki Abe, 54, principal of the Onami Elementary School, says he wants Takashi to get in touch with as many people as possible at the elementary school to nurture his social development.
He meets Takashi at the school entrance at 7:30 a.m. Around the same time, Yoshinobu Sakuma, 60, a school janitor, cleans around the entrance to greet the school’s only pupil.
Local residents have played a big part in Takashi’s school life.
The Onami district solicited contributions in March and donated 300,000 yen ($3,000) to the elementary school to spend on Takashi’s education.
Yoshitsugu Yamaki, 54, who heads the local athletic association, says he plans to liven up the May annual sports festival organized by residents and Onami Elementary School.
“We will ask for help from the women’s division of the agricultural cooperative association and serve rice balls and miso soup with pork and vegetables,” Yamaki says.
This year, Takashi may take part as a member of a school team that includes teachers and school employees.
Despite the enthusiasm for local events, residents who evacuated from the Onami district are not expected to return anytime soon.
“We have to keep up our efforts to encourage them to gradually return to their hometown, starting with attending events such as the sports festival and the summer festival,” Yamaki says.
As a sixth-grader, Takashi will move on to a junior high school next year.
Yamaki says he hopes the elementary school will not be closed after Takashi graduates.