Japan: After the earthquake and tsunami, back to school
- 9 May 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
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 was left covered by a thick layer of mud, and the children wear face masks to protect themselves from the smell and dust.
Nothing will be again how it was in Ishinomaki for a very long time, but at least the children are seeing their friends again now, 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 says. "We've seen parents, family, homes washed away. I believe what we teachers can do is support the children when they are ready to talk about it."
Mr Kiumi says they are looking out for children whose behaviour has changed since the disaster, trying to identify those who need more help to cope with the trauma the entire school has been through.
But most of all, they see their role as providing stability and a return to the old routine.
Teams of psychologists have been sent to the region, including by the charity Medicins sans Frontieres, to provide professional help and counselling.
"Many people have fear, especially as aftershocks are still persisting here," says Dr Akiko Kono. "For example, some children always wear their clothes, or even helmets, at night time because they fear they may have to evacuate immediately after an aftershock."
In Ishinomaki, MSF has set up a coffee shop in a tent which families visit. The psychologists want 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 don't want to show negative feelings," says Dr Kono. "They want to keep negative feelings inside. But inside they are suffering a lot."
'Full of smiles'
Until the new term started, the teachers at Okaido Elementary School had little idea how many children would turn up.
The disaster has scattered people from the northeast around the country, as those who have lost homes have moved away. Others have 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 have 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 1426, 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 on to 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 back of the new school year in April.
"It was full of smiles, it was wonderful," says Osamu Kitamura, the deputy headmaster. "They hadn't seen each other for a very 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 passed away. So I am sure that was a shocking moment for them."
Some children have not left the school since the disaster - instead, their families have moved in. Okaido Elementary was used as an evacuation centre, like many schools in north eastern Japan.
Around 200 people are still living in the classrooms on the third floor. The desks have been cleared away and blankets laid out.
Hibiki Otsuka, aged 11, and Ena Ueki, who is 10, have been here now for nearly two months.
"I always used to sleep in the bed; now we sleep on the floor. It's uncomfortable," says Hibiki. "It's good that class is very close by. But home, of course, would be better."
"It's a bit strange that I just come and go in the same building," adds Ena. "During the time when school was closed, I couldn't play with my friends, so I am happy that it has started again."