High school student Takuya Otomo waits for the first train of the day at Kumagane Station in Aoba district, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. (Mainichi)
SENDAI — High school students in coastal areas of northeastern Japan devastated by the March 11 earthquake-triggered tsunamis are spending hours to commute to school as local railway lines remain in shambles with no signs of being restored in the near future.
At Kumagane Station in Sendai City’s Aoba district, Takuya Otomo, a 17-year-old student of Miyagi Suisan High School, gets on the first train of the day at 6:30 a.m, the beginning of a three-hour trip to his school in Ishinomaki.
Together with his parents, younger sister and brother, he evacuated to the home of his mother’s parents near Kumagane Station after his home near the Sanriku coast was flooded. Because part of the Senseki Line that Otomo used to take to Ishinomaki has yet to be restored, he is forced to take three trains further inland to make it to school. It takes about an hour longer than it took him to commute from his home before the disaster.
The school he used to go to suffered damage from the tsunamis, so it has rented space for classrooms from another school, Ishinomakikita Senior High School. Otomo arrives there at 9:20 a.m., stops by the teachers’ room to report his arrival. He cannot help but be late for the first class of the day, but the school forgives the tardiness.
His father has moved to Natori by himself where he has a job, while his grandparents are staying at their own home and clearing their farmland. Shortly after the disaster Takuya had thought of quitting school to help his grandparents with their farm. But when he went to school in early May after a long absence, he started to think that he actually wanted to stay in school and later get a job in the fisheries industry. He has been taking advantage of the long commute to study for qualification tests for such a job.
There is another student who is late for the first class despite taking the first train of the day, and there are also several other students who come in late when their bus gets caught in traffic jams, which can be caused by reconstruction work.
“We want them to get their ordinary life back as soon as possible, but it is still not clear when that will happen,” said Yujiro Masuda, a 38-year-old teacher.
At Kesennuma High School along the Kesennuma Line, about 40 students are separated from their parents, living together at a judo facility on the school premises because they cannot commute. The prefectural board of education said they did not know the total number of students staying on school premises.
Akemi Ishii, Takeo Maeda and Keiji Ohara / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
Primary school teachers in disaster-hit areas continue to make extraordinary efforts on behalf of their young students.
Many teachers took it upon themselves to confirm the safety of their students after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. While also helping the management of evacuation centers, they have paid careful attention to children’s mental conditions.
But a teacher who experienced the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake warned that authorities should do their best to avoid placing extra burdens on teachers, such as nonessential clerical work, and let them concentrate on teaching their students.
In Minami-Sanrikucho, Miyagi Prefecture, all public primary and middle schools that did not suffer major damage in the disaster are used as shelters for evacuees. It is true for the Shizugawa Primary School, where almost all of the school’s 33 teachers have helped sort relief supplies and run the shelter.
Relatives of some teachers went missing in the disaster, but Keiichi Kato, 57, principal of the school, said it had not affected the teachers’ dedication to their students.
“All of them have put the children before their private matters,” said Kato. He said three of his teachers had become ill due to overwork.
The teachers have also organized informal study sessions so children do not fall behind in their studies, and make their own original worksheets for their students.
When electricity was restored to the school on April 25, Yutaka Yamauchi, a 47-year-old teacher, was leading a study session in one of the classrooms. Since March 11, the clock in the room had been stopped at 2:46 p.m., the time the powerful earthquake struck. When the hands started moving for the first time since then, the children cheered, “Wow! The electricity’s back!”
On April 30, during the Golden Week holidays, teachers gave their time to clean classrooms and sorted relief goods stored at the school. On Tuesday, the school officially began its new academic year.
Money no object
Of the 267 teachers at primary and middle schools in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, 75 lost their homes in the disaster.
Tomoko Ono, 33, a teacher at Kamaishi Higashi Middle School, lost her house to the tsunami. She escaped without even her purse or cell phone.
She spent the following days visiting different evacuation centers to confirm the safety of her students. By the time she made her first visit to where her house had stood, it was about two weeks after the disaster.
“I felt as if I’d been working nonstop, around the clock,” she recalled.
Kamaishi Higashi Middle School teachers pooled 180,000 yen of their own money to buy a secondhand car so they could share it, along with a few other cars they borrowed from relatives, to visit students’ homes and check in on them.
Damage to the school building forced the teachers to use a library at Koshi Middle School as their temporary staff room. There was only one landline telephone, so to make it easier to contact students and parents, the teachers again used their own money to buy cell phones.
A senior official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry was surprised to hear the teachers had spent their own money.
“They bought a car for school activities?” he asked, adding there is no system to reimburse the teachers.
Eight students at Isobe Primary School in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, lost parents in the tsunami.
Teachers from the school took turns staying overnight at Soma municipal general welfare center, where the children were staying, to care for them for nearly a month after the disaster.
Reiko Ashiguchi, 42, was one of those teachers. She studied with the children and made origami cranes from newspapers with them, and worries about their well-being.
“Some of the kids haven’t fully processed the reality of the disaster or their grief over losing their parents,” she said.
The education ministry and prefectural boards of education plan to dispatch more school counselors to disaster-hit areas, but the local teachers who have built trusting relationships with their students will continue to play an important role in the grieving and healing process.
Hideto Takinouchi, a primary school teacher in Hyogo Prefecture who undertook training in children’s mental health care after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, has visited schools in disaster-hit areas in Miyagi Prefecture. He said it is important for administrators to reduce teachers’ clerical work as much as possible, so they can concentrate on their students.
“If teachers have to do everything, they’ll burn out,” he said.
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.”
This photograph shows 249 student handbooks sent to Naraha Junior High School in Aizu Misato, Fukushima Prefecture. The handbooks remain in a cardboard box as it is not clear when the school will reopen. (Mainichi)
The ongoing crisis at a nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan has forced a number of schools near the troubled site to remain closed, affecting about 12,000 children, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Board of Education.
Of 54 elementary and junior high schools near the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, 23 of them had to abandon their plans to reopen for the new school term starting in early April, the Fukushima Prefectural Board of Education said. About 70 percent of 25 schools in the off-limits zones within a 20-kilometer radius of the nuclear plant were unable to move their school functions elsewhere, forcing their pupils to attend classes at schools near their evacuation shelters. Some school officials voiced concern that the situation could break the bonds between the children.
Apart from the off-limits zones, the government had designated areas that were expected to receive high doses of radiation as “planned evacuation zones” and those areas within a 20-30 kilometer radius of the nuclear plant that were not expected to receive high doses of radiation but might need evacuation in times of contingency as “indoor standby zones.” Therefore the schools in those zones have to be closed under Japanese law. Across 12 municipalities in those zones, 54 elementary and junior high schools were forced to remain closed and about 12,000 children were affected.
Of the 54 schools, eight in the off-limits zones were able to move their school functions elsewhere, the Fukushima Prefectural Board of Education said. Six out of 10 schools in the “planned evacuation zones” and 17 out of 19 schools in the “indoor standby zones” moved their school functions outside their areas. Those 31 schools that had moved their educational functions elsewhere opened temporary schools at abandoned school buildings or rented empty classrooms at existing schools.
The remaining 23 schools have no prospects of reopening, and therefore their children apparently had to transfer to schools near evacuation shelters outside the zones in the prefecture or schools near shelters outside the prefecture. The situation is such that the schools have virtually vanished, albeit temporarily. The Fukushima Prefectural Board of Education plans to start assigning in early May teachers from the 23 schools to those schools to which many of their pupils have transferred. The teachers will have two posts concurrently for their old and new schools, respectively.
The reason why the teachers would hold two posts concurrently is that the board of education wants to keep the old school names in their titles, a board of education official said. “We are concerned because this is a problem that affects the children’s mental state. But while the nuclear accident has not been resolved, there are no prospects of the schools reopening. We feel sorry for the children. Once local residents start living in groups at temporary homes and the like, the schools could reopen,” said the official.
(Mainichi Japan) April 28, 2011