Fukushima evacuee kids made welcome in Saitama school

by Yoshiki Seto

Kyodo

With little hope of returning home, children from the town of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, are making new friends at a school in Saitama Prefecture that took them in two years ago after the meltdowns of March 2011 ruined the area.

Shortly after the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region and knocked the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant out of control, its cohost Futaba, only 7 km away from the plant, had to evacuate to escape the radiation.

The Futaba municipal office was soon transferred to an evacuation center built in what used to be Kisai High School in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, where about 133 evacuees were living as of March 1, the town said.

Out of Kazo’s 333 children, 49 still go to nearby Kisai Elementary, although the number has dropped from the initially registered 100.

School officials said many of the children looked plagued by anxiety and confusion, with some unable to stop crying or part with their parents after arriving at school. Others have refused to open their minds to reality since being relocated.

To provide psychological support, the school has organized interviews with counselors and held a group workshop to help the children remember their lives in Futaba.

The school also tried not to build any walls between the children from the two towns.

“There are certain things we’re taking into consideration (for children from Futaba), but we try not to label them ‘kids from Futaba’ or differentiate them (from those from Kazo),” said Masanobu Matsui, the 58-year-old principal of Kisai Elementary School.

To help unite the children, the school has suggested that its marching band play a medley of songs from Kisai and from two schools the Fukushima children used to attend — Futaba Minami Elementary School and Futaba Kita Elementary School.

Among the 18 members of the band, all fourth- and fifth-graders, is 11-year-old Aika Kobayashi from Futaba Kita.

“When I get into sixth grade, I want to lead the junior students,” Aika said.

At Kisai Elementary, Aika has made friends who enjoy jumping rope or doing homework together at her home.

Last December, Aika’s class took part in the Saitama prefectural jump rope tournament. “Although we weren’t able to make any good records in the tournament, I enjoyed it very much that we all worked together,” she said.

Her 37-year-old mother, Yuka, said she is thankful for the school. “Since the school treated her equally (with students in Kisai) from the beginning, my daughter was able to fit in smoothly,” she said.

Hiroshi Sato, a 38-year-old teacher from Futaba Minami who is working at Kisai, said, “The children from Futaba have gotten accustomed to school life here and are becoming cheerful.”

As for the kids who have already left Kisai, about 80 percent of them relocated to Fukushima Prefecture.

Aika’s mother said she thought of moving her family back to Fukushima too in the first year but decided to stay in Kazo until Aika graduates from high school.

“I’d feel sorry if she had to start again from scratch,” she said.

Sato, the teacher, said, “I hope kids will hold their own goals or dreams for the future and stay positive. I’d like to continue offering them moral support.”