Giving the children of Fukushima a place to play is not easy

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

The Fukushima Aiikuen orphanage sits on 7 hectares of wooded hills — that’s about the area of 15 or 16 soccer pitches — on the outskirts of the city of Fukushima. There’s an outdoor sports field, a campsite and plenty of lawns for the 91 children living there to play on. In the two years since the start of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, however, they’ve gone mostly unused.

That’s because orphanage director Hisao Saito, 60, has cut outdoor playtime from five to two hours per day for elementary-age children at the facility; for the preschoolers, he has nearly eliminated it.

He says he wants to lower their exposure to radiation, but he worries about the side effects.

“Plants need soil to grow, but so do humans. I’m very uneasy about the kids growing up without touching the soil. Even though there’s nature all around them, they can’t touch it. It’s like it’s not there,” he says.

The government aims for radiation levels below 0.23 microseiverts per hour as a long-term goal in the Fukushima cleanup. Throughout much of Aiikuen’s grounds, the levels vary between 0.15 and 0.50 mSv/hr. In some hotspots, however, they exceed 13 mSv/hr.

Parents in many parts of the prefecture share Saito’s concerns. In 2012, children there between the ages of 5 and 9, as well as those aged 14 and 17, ranked top in the country in a government survey comparing the weight of children in each prefecture. The study fueled speculations that children are gaining weight because parents and teachers are afraid to let them play outside.

After the meltdown disasters at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, the prefectural government began offering parents free indoor play spaces where they could take their children without worrying about radiation. Some preschools and other facilities received subsidies to buy more toys and host free play time for local kids. Several new, large-scale play centers were also opened.

The largest so far is Pep Kids in the inland city of Koriyama. In its first year of operation, the indoor playground averaged 1,000 visitors on weekdays and 1,500 on weekends. As of earlier this month, it had logged 400,000 visits.

Koriyama plans to build four more indoor play centers this year. But local activist Yasushi Takemoto says that radiation levels at two of the proposed sites are some of the highest in the city (up to 0.91 mSv/hr). Although levels will be much lower inside, he wonders if parents will feel comfortable bringing their children to play.

“What’s the reason for building these facilities in the first place? It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “These places may be necessary, but basically it’s not a natural situation.”

Some parents are choosing the risk of low-level radiation over the stress, for their children, of not playing outside.

“I keep an eye on the levels, but I don’t think it’s good for my daughter’s health to keep her indoors all the time. I try to balance indoor and outdoor time,” said a mother of three who had brought her 2-year-old daughter to a free indoor play hour offered by Sayuri Nursery School in the city of Fukushima.

As sunlight poured into the small, warm room, her daughter tugged a rainbow-colored wooden hedgehog across the floor. She was clearly enjoying whatever kind of play she could get.