Four years on, Tohoku towns still waiting for schools, homes, answers


“Inquiry” may be a buzzword in education these days, but for Tohoku students and parents, there are too many questions without answers.

A month before the anniversary of the March 11, 2011, triple disaster, I traveled from Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, to Rikuzentakata and back to Tokyo, via Minamisoma in Fukushima. As I drove through Natori, on the Miyagi coastline, and past the no-go zone surrounding the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on my way back south, pile after pile of black waste bags stretched out before me, each seemingly begging its own unanswered question.

In Iwate coastal towns, mounds of raised dirt and clean-shaven fields of nothing mark where debris and chaos once reigned. In Fukushima, the ubiquitous bags of contaminated soil are interspersed with signposts indicating current radiation readings.

For students in many of the affected areas, a return to the mundane world of exams and matriculation has been met with conflicting emotions: a newly discovered maturity and seriousness tempered by a growing sense of entitlement and lack of discipline. Everything about the recovery process is complicated, and as I asked one question, three more arose. Yet some things remained clear.

In every town I visited, educators and parents expressed concern about students’ diminished level of physical education. In the Iwate towns of Otsuchi and Rikuzentakata, a lack of facilities and long bus rides to school or playing fields are now the norm; in Minamisoma, concerns about radiation continue to linger. Still, all agree: The students need more space if they are to enjoy an active, healthy lifestyle.

“Almost all of the temporary classrooms were built on school playgrounds, so the children have almost no outdoor space for sports,” explains Satoru Gamou, director of the Hakki Project NPO in Rikuzentakata. “There isn’t even enough space for a 100-meter dash on sports day.”

Residents have been complaining since the temporary schools were first erected in September 2011, but 3½ years on, much remains the same. Gamou’s fond memories of the area’s once-strong volleyball and baseball programs are now tinged with regret.

“This April, the new Takata High School will be ready, but there is no sports field, and gym classes will still be held in Ofunato, over 30 km away,” says Gamou, 51, who now helps run the temporary housing complex built on the Rikuzen Takata Mobilia campsite he managed before 3/11. “My son, who plays baseball, would have attended Takahata High School, once a baseball powerhouse. Now, nothing remains.”

Many residents voiced their enduring frustration that while there is an abundance of space in the tsunami-hit areas that could be put to use as sports fields — or where temporary classrooms could be relocated to, freeing up playgrounds and sports fields — creating such areas has not been a priority. Of the four elementary schools and one junior high school that existed in Otsuchi pre-March 2011, only one barely survived the calamity, having been flooded and then burned in the fires that razed the port area. But the repaired Otsuchi Elementary School building houses no students; instead, it is now the City Hall, with a spacious adjoining parking lot, while Otsuchi’s 500 elementary and 263 junior high school students are squeezed together in prefabricated buildings on a temporary school site, sharing one small field and a prefab gym.

Construction for a new elementary and junior high is planned on high ground next to the Otsuchi High School, which was untouched by the tsunami, but progress has been slow and completion is still years away. Locals complain that while students spend their days in cramped prefabs, city officials work in a refitted building whose restoration is rumored to have cost ¥8 billion.

“I feel especially sorry that the third-year students here have spent all of their junior high school years in this poor temporary building,” says Yasushi Goto, vice principal of Otsuchi Junior High.

Despite their physical surroundings, the students of Otsuchi Junior High greeted us cheerfully through an open window of their makeshift school, waving and practicing their English.

“The students who survived the disaster are much more positive and motivated,” Goto says. “You might think the experience of the disaster would have made student behavior worse, but in reality, it made the students stronger.”

Goto also praised the hard work and positive attitude of the teachers.

“The staff room is really cramped, but it’s brought us closer,” he says. “Since we are closer, we smile more, and these smiles are passed on to the students.”

In Otsuchi, a rural town hugging the coast of Iwate near Kamaishi, keeping kids in school has always been a struggle, as many quit after junior high to join their parents in the fishing industry, and tensions between inlanders and coastal towns regularly spill over into the schools. Before 2011, Otsuchi schools were known across Iwate for rowdy students and low educational standards, but residents agree with Goto that the students themselves possess a new maturity.

Miyako Ogayu, whose husband is head of Dainenji Temple in Sendai, has run a reading club for the last eight years serving the community in Otsuchi. Ogayu has long seen books as a gateway to new worlds, and she redoubled her efforts after the disaster, expanding the club to a wider area and helping support young mothers. She too prefers to emphasize the positives that have sprung from adversity.

“The children’s horizons have been broadened by meeting so many volunteers — people from other countries or university students from all over Japan,” she says. “I think more students are going to university now than ever before.”

At the same time, Ogayu worries about the students’ emotional health.

“Daily life is becoming easier now, with many new supermarkets or convenience stores opening up, but we are losing our sense of identity as a community. With this loss, people aren’t paying attention to the behavior of those around them anymore.”

Katsumi Sawaguchi, a longtime resident and community leader, agrees.

“Unfortunately, some of the parents receiving aid have started to take the aid for granted, and they pass this attitude on to their children,” he says. “Other parents are so concerned with making a living that they can’t think of anything else. Parents hesitate to discipline their children since the kids have been through so much, and volunteers take on the same attitude. Children have learned they will get their way, no matter what they do.”

Sawaguchi, a retired businessman and accomplished cut-paper artist, taught his art in schools in Kamaishi as a volunteer before the disaster. Since the 2011 tsunami, he has expanded his volunteer work to include Otsuchi and other areas. He also started the Sakura Project three years ago, planting cherry blossom trees along the mountain evacuation path in Otsuchi, with the dual aim of getting students outside and involved in restoring the natural beauty of their hometown. Sawaguchi echoed the sentiments of Ogayu and others I spoke to in Otsuchi and elsewhere in Tohoku: To support the students, we must support the whole community.

Community leader Katsumi Sawaguchi (right) talks with children at the Philia Cafe run by the Catholic charity Caritas Japan in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.
Community leader Katsumi Sawaguchi (right) talks with children at the Philia Cafe run by the Catholic charity Caritas Japan in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. | KERRY SHIOYA

Minamisoma, a small seaside town only 25 km from the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and its neighbors are still reeling from the triple disaster. Driving in on the Joban Expressway, I am struck by the stretches of nothingness. Instead of speed limits, the highway signs warn us of the radiation level.

Psychiatrist Arinobu Hori moved from Tokyo to Minamisoma a year after the earthquake and tsunami, when the evacuation order was lifted, to help residents and take up a job at Fukushima Medical University’s Department of Disaster and Comprehensive Medicine. Hori also sees the lack of exercise and growing discipline problems among Fukushima children as symptoms of a larger issue: tired parents, exhausted and overprotective, have few caregivers to support them.

“Parents are torn about the risks involved with radiation exposure,” Hori says. “Some are still very conscious of and anxious about the health impact and do not let their children play outside. A lot of parents feel timid and cautious in their parenting, and are overprotective.”

On the other hand, Hori is also worried about the growing dependence on television and video games to keep children quiet in temporary housing, where noise and the uncomfortable proximity of neighbors are major concerns.

“I am afraid that in 10 years’ time, both the lack of physical exercise and a dependency on gaming will be a problem,” he says.

These may seem like minor problems considering what the families have been through, but Hori believes it is these everyday struggles that are wearing residents down.

“Doctors, nurses, teachers and parents are all tired here. There are just not enough people here” to support the remaining residents, he says. “The government is spending too much money on construction and decontamination. These things are important, I agree, but the government should pay more for specialists who can come and take care of the people, and to the few specialists who are already here.”

Known for their tenacity, Tohoku residents such as Gamou, Ogayu and Sawaguchi soldier on, determined to do their best for the children, despite all the unanswered questions. Outside NPOs continue to play an important role, too. One success story has been the “collaboration schools” in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, and Otsuchi run by Tokyo-based educational NPO Katariba. Named because it is a “collaboration between local teachers, board of education, nursery school teachers and other interested adults,” the Collabo School project started with the aim of providing a quiet space to study for children living in temporary housing. Over time, the schools have become focal points for the local community.

“I tell the parents and the kids that it’s a place where students gather who want to study, but we’ve also heard from teachers that this place has really helped meet the emotional needs of the children,” explains Aya Kawai, 30, director of the school in Otsuchi. “Many children have to commute a long way to school, so as soon as classes are over they get on the school buses to go home, meaning they can’t attend after-school activities or join sports teams. Having a place where they can go after they get home to meet their friends has really helped the children emotionally, teachers have told us.”

Inside the
Inside the ‘collaboration school’ in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, run by the Tokyo-based NPO Katariba in Otsuchi. | KERRY SHIOYA

Katariba also hopes to make the nation’s student body more aware of their local communities with an initiative that began in Otsuchi called My Project, in which local high school students create and execute a community service project. Kawai’s face lights up as she shares the stories of local students who have accomplished impressive things with “minimal adult interference”: One girl created a program for preschool children to help get them outside and active; another organized the Otsuchi Starry Night Project to “convey the magnificence of the night sky in Otsuchi,” making the most of the absence of street lights after the disaster; another created a wooden monument, hoping it would inspire future generations to rebuild while still remembering the tragedy.

The process of recovery is complicated, explains Hori, especially for young and impressionable students.

“The very ordinary things are in danger: having hope for the future, believing in the community support system — just normal, ordinary things are important for their everyday lives,” she says. “Japanese believe they are focused on harmony — and maybe it is true with individuals, but groups in Japan also tend to withdraw inward, saying, ‘This is our area and we will deal with it.’ This kind of thinking makes it very difficult for broader social welfare programs to work, as they depend on the cooperation of many smaller groups, working together.”

Local residents ask: When will construction move forward on the new school in Otsuchi? With school communities fractured, how can people rebuild and reconnect in Rikuzentakata? When will the young caregivers — the pediatricians, day care workers and nurses — and teachers return to Minamisoma to provide support to overwhelmed parents? What do students need most now in the affected areas?

Four years on from the disaster, the people of Tohoku deserve some answers.

Special thanks to Kerry Shioya — guide, translator and storyteller — whose introductions and assistance were invaluable. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: