Makeshift nursery in tsunami-hit Kesennuma struggles but fills role

by Yumiko Iida

Kyodo

Just two months after the tsunami on March 11, 2011, devastated the city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, Emi Satomi and a group of nursery teachers whose jobs were eliminated by the catastrophe began a makeshift day care center in a warehouse up on a hill.

Satomi, 51, is a niece of the director of a local nursery who died in the tsunami. The nursery school, which had been operating for more than 30 years was swept away. Only its bare foundation remains.

Initially, when she agreed to nurses’ requests in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to help look after their children while they worked, she intended to do so only until the mothers found other day care alternatives. But by summer that year, the number of children at Satomi’s makeshift day care center had reached about 20.

Satomi felt the limits of running the nursery in the warehouse, where there was neither water nor toilets.

But at the same time, she knew there was certainly demand for the service. So she tried to seek assistance from support groups, only to be met with a rather cold response to the idea of temporary day care.

Good news came when a construction company executive in Yamagata Prefecture offered to build a facility for her — on condition that she was “serious” about continuing the nursery.

“I was scared,” Satomi recalled, worrying that demand may not keep up in the long run, given Japan’s low birthrate as well as the hollowing out that was taking place as residents were forced to evacuate or move elsewhere as a result of the disaster. “Would we be able to keep going?”

One thing was certain, however. The city had a shortage of day-care services, especially for babies and toddlers up to around 2 years old. Moved by the executive’s words that “these children will be the ones to revive Kensennuma” in the future, Satomi made up her mind to stay the course.

She named the new nursery, completed last July at a location safe from future tsunami, Kids Room Ohisama, which means “sun.” More than 50 children are enrolled, and the number will rise to 60 when the new school year starts in April. The rest are on a waiting list.

Finances are tight but Satomi is sticking to her decision of not registering the facility as an “approved” nursery because she wants to be able to serve all parents and children in need, regardless of their background and whether they meet the rigid enrollment qualifications for “approved” nurseries.

Operating as an “unapproved” nursery means Kids Room Ohisama receives much less in public subsidies than “approved” nurseries.

Satomi also petitioned on behalf of about 20 of the nursery’s children who are still in temporary housing and finally succeeded in getting aid so their fees can be reduced or exempted.

“It’s tough, but we are fortunate and thankful that even now relief supplies are being sent to us from everywhere,” Satomi said.

“Parents (with small children) can stay here and work in Kesennuma because our nursery is here. We’ll be able to keep going for as long as we are needed.”

According to a tally by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as of last April 1, 50 day care facilities were destroyed or swept away by the March 2011 tsunami, while another 61 were heavily damaged.

A total of 76 nurseries have closed down in the disaster-hit areas, whether “approved” or “unapproved.”