Back to school in quake-hit Japan

Focus, Normal

The National, Tuesday, May 10, 2011

IT  is early morning and the children of Ishinomaki are on their way to school.
Small groups walking on foot, leather knapsacks on their backs.
A teacher is waiting to help them across the road outside the gate – a reassuringly normal scene. But, there is no escape from the reminders of the earthquake and tsunami which battered this town.
The roads are lined with piles of wreckage. The entire area is left covered by a thick layer of mud, and the children wear face masks to protect themselves from the smell and dust.
Nothing will again be how it was in Ishinomaki for a long time but, at least, the children are seeing their friends again, and getting back to lessons.
Inside the Okaido elementary school, the classrooms are crowded and the children are chatting excitedly.
Across the northeast of Japan, 7,735 school buildings were damaged or destroyed, and students have to crowd in to those that remain.
Teacher Noriyoshi Kiumi has to raise his voice to get their attention.
Today’s first lesson is maths. Not everyone’s favourite, perhaps, but better than thinking about what happened to their town.
“Everybody here has suffered,” he said. “We have seen parents, family and homes washed away.
“I believe what we, teachers, can do is support the children when they are ready to talk about it.”
Kiumi said they were looking out for children whose behaviour had changed since the disaster, trying to identify those who needed more help to cope with the trauma the entire school had been through.
But most of all, they see their role as providing stability and a return to the old routine.
Teams of psychologists had been sent to the region, including the charity Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF), to provide professional help and counselling.
“Many people have fear, especially as aftershocks are still persisting here,” Dr Akiko Kono said. “For example, some children always wear their clothes, or even helmets, at night because they fear they may have to evacuate immediately after an aftershock.”
In Ishinomaki, MSF had set up a coffee shop in a tent which families visit. The psychologists wanted it to be unthreatening, an easy place to go to talk things over.
Admitting to suffering from any problems with mental health is difficult in Japan, where the people are reserved and take pride in their self-reliance.
“Of course, usually Japanese people do not want to show negative feelings,” Kono says. “They want to keep negative feelings inside. But, inside, they are suffering a lot.”
Until the new term started, the teachers at Okaido elementary school had little idea how many children would turn up.
The disaster had scattered people from the northeast around the country, as those who lost homes had moved away. Others had arrived in evacuation centres in the school’s catchment area.
This year, the school has 50 students fewer than last year. In all, 9,433 children had left the badly-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, according to the ministry of education.
But the staff at the school did know that all but two of the children survived the disaster because it was the teachers who saved them.
When the earthquake hit at 2.46pm, it was towards the end of the school day and the children were still in the building preparing to go home.
The teachers shepherded them first into the gym, the strongest part of the building. Then, when the tsunami warnings sounded, they led everyone up onto the roof.
The two who died were picked up by their parents right after the earthquake and were out on the streets when the waves swept in.
After their escape, it was emotional for children arriving on the first day of the new school year last month.
“It was full of smiles, it was wonderful,” Osamu Kitamura, the deputy headmaster, says. “They had not seen each other for a long time so it was great to be reunited. It was such a happy moment.
“We, teachers, were cheered up by seeing them smiling.
“But the very first thing we had to do was tell them about the children who had died. So, I am sure that was a shocking moment for them.”
Some children had not left the school since the disaster – instead, their families had moved in.
Okaido elementary was used as an evacuation centre, like many schools in north eastern Japan.
About 200 people were still living in the classrooms on the third floor.
The desks had been cleared away and blankets laid out.
Hibiki Otsuka, 11, and Ena Ueki, who is 10, have been here for nearly two months.
“I always sleep in the bed; now, we sleep on the floor. It is uncomfortable,” Hibiki says.
“It is good that class is very close by.
“But home, of course, will be better.”
Ena added: “It is a bit strange that I just come and go in the same building.
“During the time when school was closed, I could not play with my friends, so I am happy that it has started again.” – BBC