NAGAOKA, Niigata Pref. – A sense of displacement still haunts residents of what used to be the village of Yamakoshi, even though nearly a year has passed since the earthquakes of Oct. 23, 2004, devastated the Niigata Prefecture community.
The desire for unity appears especially strong among children. Elementary school pupils in Yamakoshi, which was merged with Nagaoka after the quake, are longing to return to their school.
The children are now studying in rented classrooms at the Nagaoka municipal Sakanoue Elementary School. Since Yamakoshi Junior High School was destroyed, a joint elementary-junior high school is being built where it once stood and will open next September.
After the quake, all the villagers were evacuated to Nagaoka and have basically not been allowed to return home.
On one day in August, 76 schoolchildren from Yamakoshi were allowed to return to the school, accompanied by their parents or guardians.
On that morning, the children toured the school with its cracked walls, trying to salvage useful equipment. In the afternoon, they played on the school grounds.
In a collection of works published in March, the children said they want to return to Yamakoshi and see their village rehabilitated.
“I was born and raised in Yamakoshi. It was rich in nature, scenery and kind people. I want to return there as quickly as possible,” a fifth-grader wrote.
But it remains unclear whether all the children will be able to return.
“Parents working in Nagaoka and nearby Ojiya are trying to decide whether they should settle in new homes in the city built with loans,” said Hitoshi Tanaka, 45, president of the parent-teacher association who planned the trip. “Therefore, I wanted the parents to check for themselves by seeing their children at the school.”
Tanaka, who is self-employed, has three children and faces the same hard decisions as the other parents.
“My children say they want to study in Yamakoshi, and their school base is the school in Yamakoshi. Children’s thinking is purer and more straightforward than that of their parents, who are full of worries and hesitation. I think the parents’ sense of values is being put to the test,” he said.
The Nagaoka Municipal Government in July lifted its evacuation order for eight areas of Yamakoshi village, but no villager has returned home completely.
Instead, they make trips to the village to look after colored carp they were raising, or their fields, or to repair their houses. The evacuation order for six other areas has yet to be lifted.
The prefectural board of education sent counselors to the makeshift Yamakoshi Elementary School in Nagaoka on six occasions up to August to try to help the children with their adjustment problems.
Principal Kenkichi Kawazawa, 56, said: “While the aftershocks were continuing, there were children who could not sleep and had earthquake nightmares. Even today, some of the children cannot sleep when it gets dark, or from worrying about whether they can return to the school in Yamakoshi and to their homes.”
But the children also appear to be robust.
“The children are receiving a good stimulus from being at a large school,” said Yuya Aizawa, 27, a teacher in charge of sixth-graders.
Sakanoue Elementary School has more than three times as many pupils as the Yamakoshi school.
“There were fewer kids at the Yamakoshi, so they were able to understand each other perfectly. Expressing themselves was not a problem,” Aizawa said. “At first when they came here, they could not voice their opinions at a meeting with the Sakanoue school on broadcasting and health.”
But now, he said, they are able to communicate well. The educational target of “learning from the region” remains unchanged, and Aizawa said he will take up Yamakoshi features, including fighting bulls and terraced rice fields, in class.
Temporary houses for the villagers were built in a new town in Nagaoka, and children can be seen playing ball and riding bicycles on the streets. “The scene of so many children playing together is unimaginable in Yamakoshi,” said Noboru Aoki, 71, who ran a stationery shop in the village.
The sixth-graders plan to stage a drama to express their gratitude to those who helped the villagers.