For 8-year-old Risa Yoshida from the city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, writing chatty letters to her parents and friends had always been a joy. But writing to her father, Hirofumi, became much more important after March 11 last year, when a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit their hometown.
She would write words of encouragement to her 48-year-old father in an effort to boost his spirits after he lost his job as a judicial scrivener when their home and his office were washed away by the tsunami that smashed into parts of the Tohoku region.
Then, when she moved with her parents and younger sister into a shelter set up in the city and saw other people striving to get on with their lives amid shortages of food and other daily necessities, Risa felt the same urge to offer words of reassurance and comfort.
It was natural, therefore, for Risa, who loves to write and read newspapers, to come up with the idea of creating her own paper as a way to give heart to the 300 or so evacuees at the shelter.
On March 18, just a week after the megaquake and tsunami hit the city, Risa, together with her friend, Satoko Oyama, 10, and two other elementary and junior high school students, launched the first edition of the “Fight Shimbun,” a colorful handwritten wall newspaper with illustrations. In Japanese culture, urging someone to fight is a way of encouraging them to do their best.
“I wanted to cheer up people at the shelter as much as I could because they looked so sad,” said Risa, who served as the first editor in chief of the newspaper.
After Risa moved to temporary housing in another part of the city on April 4 last year, Oyama took over her role. Eight more children joined in and they continued to publish the paper almost every other day through issue No. 50 on July 4, when it became too difficult to keep going because most of the children had left.
The children’s efforts brought national media attention and eventually caught the eye of officials at UNESCO. As a result, on Monday, four of the 12 children who worked on Fight Shimbun visited the headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, when UNESCO honored their publishing achievement, their supporters said Wednesday.
“We’re delighted that the children’s heartfelt efforts to raise the spirits of people at the shelter have been recognized in this way,” said Noriko Matsuda, photographer and a representative of a nonprofit organization set up by the children’s parents and supporters to see that the originals of the newspapers are preserved for posterity.
In Paris, the children will express gratitude on behalf of everyone in Tohoku for the support received from around the globe for victims of the disaster. They will also hand over reproductions of some of the issues, which UNESCO will then display at its headquarters, according to the Fight Shimbun nonprofit group.
In preparing the articles, the children made it a rule to write about “something cheerful” and to avoid gloomy stories. The headlines included “Our 1st Bath at the Shelter,” “Now Electricity is Back!” and “Bowls of Beef-over-Rice Are Here!” as they covered events that brought delight to them and other evacuees struggling in the harsh conditions.
In the first edition, Risa wrote: “There are various inconveniences (in refugee life), but let’s hang in there and do our best.” Many people at the shelter said they were cheered by the children’s innocent and unvarnished spirit and looked forward to reading each issue, Matsuda said.
A 47-year-old woman who was at the shelter said their bravery was contagious.
“The children’s positive attitude made me feel warm inside when as a refugee I was prone to feel anxious,” she said.
“By writing for the Fight Shimbun, we felt better too,” Risa said. “I hope many people will be able to see our newspaper and cheer up just by reading it.”
Matsuda said that what stands out about Fight Shimbun is that the children did everything by themselves without any help from adults. Risa and Satoko, together with other elementary school pupils, covered events and wrote articles, while junior and senior high school students acted as advisers.
Before obtaining recognition from UNESCO, a number of public and private entities as well as individuals got behind the children, according to Matsuda.
In July, Tohoku Recreate Expo, a nonprofit organization supporting the revival of the Tohoku region, showcased Fight Shimbun at an exhibition in Tokyo cohosted by UNESCO.
Photos of the first eight issues generated a tremendous response. Together with the backing of Misa Jonouchi, a musician and UNESCO artist for peace, this eventually led UNESCO to decide to display replicas of the newspapers at its headquarters.
The original copies are preserved at the archives of Riasu Ark Museum of Art run by local governments in Miyagi, while Seiko Epson Corp., the major printer maker, made three sets of duplicates of each of the 50 issues and gave them to the Fight Shimbun NPO.
Japan Airlines Co. offered sizable discounts on round-trip tickets to Paris as well as accommodation for the children and their families, while charity organization Rotary International District 2750 based in Tokyo helped finance the cost of their trip. Food maker Ajinomoto Co. has also chipped in to shoulder part of their expenses.
The Fight Shimbun NPO intends to make good use of the replicas for cultural and educational purposes and feature them in disaster-mitigation activities for children in Japan and abroad.
While in France, the children will visit Institution Jeanne d’Arc, a Catholic private school in the Paris suburbs, and talk about their experiences, Matsuda said.
“We hope that through exhibitions that are being planned throughout Japan and overseas that many people will be introduced to the wonderful power of the children’s writing in the newspaper.”