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Smiles return to Tohoku as the circus comes to town

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

At Nakamura Daiichi Elementary School in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, a theater company named La Tatan Sha recently staged a musical for the students that featured live painting.

Located on the coast in the north of the prefecture, Soma was hard hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Altogether, of its 38,087 residents, 459 died, including 37 under the age of 19.

Since those disasters on March 11, however, survivors in this city that’s just 40 km from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have also had to live with their fear of invisible radiation from that plant — even though the government claims that they face no short-term health risks.

In July, Anzu Kanie, a 34-year-old Tokyo-based artist who is also a member of La Tatan Sha, had visited Nakamura Daiichi Elementary School to do book readings for the students. So, prior to the start of the Oct. 28 performance, titled “Painting Circus Troupe,” she returned to talk to the students.

“Do you remember me? I promised to visit you again, so I came back!” Kanie said. “In today’s show, actors, dancers and I will work together to draw a big painting. Can you help me?”

“Yes!” the kids yelled back in delight.

During the show, La Tatan Sha — comprising the ringmaster, a clown, a dancer, an actor in a lion suit and two girl painters — set off in search of hidden treasure.

Asking, “Where is the treasure?” the ringmaster answered himself, calling out: “Let’s go North-by-Northwest!”

To a live piano accompaniment, the actors then started to sing: “Let’s go to find the treasure / Let’s go to the new world / The map of the adventure is in your heart.” Gradually, the audience started to join in and sing along with the actors.

Then Kanie, who played the role of “Painting Sister,” appeared on the stage and effortlessly brushed the outline of a big ship on the backdrop.

The circus troupe’s members called out to the audience: “Everyone, let’s make a big picture!” Just then the actors seemed to conjure up a broad, 10-meter length of white paper, which they had laid on the floor.

Without needing any more encouragement, the children rushed to grab crayons from buckets by the stage and started drawing whatever they liked on the rolled-out sheet of paper.

For the show’s finale, Kanie finished, with a flourish, painting the backdrop — which showed a Pop Art-style, smiling young woman.

After the show, the excited children were all shouting out to the actors, “See you again!” — and swapping high-fives with them, too. One girl said: “It was fun! The lion was cute. I loved the singing and enjoyed drawing.”

One of the actors, Chiaki Kuwahara, a 10-year-old from Saitama City, said the disasters on March 11 motivated her to take part in this performance.

“In Saitama, we had an earthquake,” she said, “but my family were all safe. Here, though, some children lost family members and I wanted to help them feel better by performing.”

Yuji Yoshida, the school’s principal, said the show impressed him. “The children had huge smiles on their faces during the performance. They barely ever look like that now,” he said — explaining that one student lost his father in the tsunami, seven lost their homes, and nine had their houses half-destroyed by the giant waves.

Although the elementary school is sited inland, and was not hit by those waves, another school in Soma — Nakamura Daini Elementary School — is on top of a low hill just a few hundred meters from the shore and the sea came perilously close to swamping it. Fortunately, though, its students had evacuated to the third floor, from where they watched the tsunami approaching. Four students from the Nakamura Daini school are attending his school, Yoshida said.

“The children still suffer flashbacks from the tsunami,” the principal said. “The big problem is the trauma and the loss of their families and homes.”

Although a teacher trained in counseling comes to the school once a week to listen to the children, that’s not enough to provide them with proper psychological care, Yoshida said.

Another problem is radiation. Twenty-five children from the city of Minami Soma, which is only 30 km from the nuclear power plant, have been moved to Soma and are now enrolled at Nakamura Daiichi Elementary School. While radiation levels in Soma are lower than in Minami Soma, Yoshida said that during summer the teachers and PTA members together decontaminated the school site, with the cooperation of specialists from a nonprofit organization.

“Ditches had a radiation level of 7 microsieverts,” Yoshida said. “But because we washed them, that is now down to around 0.07 microsieverts.”

However, some streets around the school still have radiation levels of around 0.3 microsieverts, Yoshida said. He has asked the city to undertake decontamination operations in the affected areas.

“Even though we could clean the area, children here must face a fear of radiation for their whole lives,” Yoshida said. “We must tackle radiation in our generation — that of us, our children and grandchildren — until the radiation disappears. It’s an incredibly serious problem.”

Yoshida said his school’s teachers are instructing the children on the risks of radiation — even telling them not to touch the earth in order to protect their health.

Concern over radiation was also voiced by a high school student who came to see another performance by the La Tatan Sha company in a community hall in Soma the following day. Chihiro Igari, second grader at Soma Higashi High School, said that up until March 11 she had lived in the town of Okuma, 5 km from Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

After the disaster, Igari moved to a friend’s house in Soma when, because of their jobs being relocated, her parents moved to the city of Aizu Wakamatsu, well inland in the large precture of Fukushima.

“I am afraid of radiation. I have read the news (about radiation), but I don’t know which information is right. I am at a loss,” the young woman said.

But it seemed Igari was encouraged by La Tatan Sha’s performance. “I was overwhelmed by the actors,” she said, “and I also enjoyed painting with them.”

Anzu Kanie, the artist who did live painting in the show, has now visited children in Soma several times since early April to involve them in a variety of activities. In fact, the city is a place she has known since her childhood, because her father is a friend of Fumio Sato, a former public-school principal there.

On March 11, Kanie called Sato, but the line was busy and she could not reach him until the following day, she said.

“Then Sato told me that a number of people in Soma, including children, had lost their houses in the tsunami, and they were staying in evacuation centers at public facilities,” Kanie said. “So I decided to go there, and I took paints, paper and picture books to children in the shelters.”

That visit was on April 6 and 7, and on May 26, Kanie returned there again — this time to hold a painting class for children at Nakamura Daini Elementary School. One of the children, a third-grader named Shun Araki, drew a picture of people drowned in the tsunami.

Araki’s grandmother was one of the tsunami victims, and his house was also destroyed, according to his teacher, Miyuki Sato. She said that Araki watched the tsunami approaching the school on March 11, when he and the other students were evacuating to the third floor, and that by drawing the picture “he wanted to express the horror of the tsunami.” However, she said that Araki also said: “I felt better after drawing it.”

After Kanie returned to Tokyo at the end of May, Sato continued to hold painting classes through July. One of her students in those classes, Hikari Shishido, lost both her parents in the tsunami — yet her painting showed colorful houses, and was titled “Rainbow is on the Sky.”

Sato, her teacher, explained that Shishido had probably been expressing her wish for her hometown on the coast to recover.

Meanwhile, after her painting class Kanie had the pictures done by Araki, Shishido and some 200 paintings by 80 other students framed — thanks to funds from Nagareyama in Chiba Prefecture, the sister city of Soma.

Then Kanie, together with the former school principal, Sato, and with the support of various companies and other groups, organized exhibitions of the pictures that were held in Tokyo in August, Nagareyama in September and some other cities through October.

On Oct. 28, too, Kanie and Sato had a book of the pictures published, titled “Fukushima no Kodomotachi ga Egaku Anotoki, Kyo, Mirai” (“Paintings of Then, Today, and the Future Drawn by Children in Fukushima”). The proceeds of sales of the book will go toward constructing a library for children in Soma, Kanie said.

The artist said that although children there are facing the threat of radiation, she hopes they understand the risk properly and enjoy learning and playing in their everyday lives.

“What I can do for the children is to draw pictures with them and show them live performances in which they can travel to an exciting world. I will continue these activities and I hope the children will grow up healthily.”

The book “Fukushima no Kodomotachi ga Egaku Anotoki, Kyo, Mirai” is priced at ¥1,365. For more information on how to obtain copies, call Tokuma Shoten at (03)-5403 4344.