It was the parents who could not stand it anymore. Akira Mitani and his wife, Eriko, told their 8-year-old son, Shohei, last month that he could start living with them again at any time.
Until recently, the boy was one of about 360 children staying at Akikawa High School in Akiruno, western Tokyo, after volcanic activity prompted them to evacuate Miyake Island, about 180 km south of Tokyo, in late August.
The boarding school, originally scheduled to close next March due to declining enrollment, reopened its dormitories to take in the young evacuees.
Most of the school-age children from Miyake live away from their parents, many of whom were accommodated in public housing units in various parts of Tokyo.
When all the schoolchildren were moved from the island on Aug. 29 — three days before an evacuation order was issued for all islanders, the Miyake Municipal Board of Education believed it would be better for the kids to stay together in one boarding school. Nobody believed it would continue this long.
The Mitanis were very nervous about sending their son to the dormitory. “He had never spent a night away from us, except for a few at our neighbor’s house,” his mother said.
Despite repeated calls by his parents to join them at their temporary housing unit in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, Shohei initially said he was all right.
“I did not get homesick after the second day at the school,” he said.
At the dormitory, five children of different grades are grouped in a room, so older students can take care of younger ones.
“I liked it there,” Shohei said, “but there was one kid who cried every time he thought about the island, saying it gave him a headache.”
Yet, when Shohei joined them at their temporary abode on weekends, the Mitanis saw in the exhausted face of their son that the frustration of separation was steadily eating away at him.
It was on the fourth such occasion when they said enough was enough.
On Oct. 10, Shohei moved in with his parents and started going to an elementary school in Kita Ward, about a five-minute walk from the residence.
“I was so nervous when I was introduced to all the students,” he said, recalling the first day at his new school. “Everybody was looking at me, kind of making me giggle. But they applauded me after I finished my speech.”
He came home with a couple of new friends the same day.
Eriko said that despite his perky attitude, Shohei had apparently been stretched to the limit — mentally and physically — by that time.
“I know this boy. He always tries hard not to give up, and we told him that he did not have to try so hard.”
Eriko said that as someone who had to look after herself as a child, she knows how children sacrifice themselves to adapt to the situation.
“I thought (being a latchkey kid) was a natural thing back then. But I guess I was lonely at the bottom of my heart, for I was traumatized by the experience and had a troubled relationship with my mother.”
Now, reunited with her son, she realizes how much the separation frustrated Shohei. “Now, he seeks more physical contact than ever.”
The prolonged evacuation, now in its third month, has taken its toll on many Miyake children.
The Miyake Board of Education said it will continue “current educational activities” for the time being. The board says it is up to parents to decide whether to have their children live with them, but also suggests it is “desirable” that they do so.
In October, more Miyake children than in the previous month moved out of the Akikawa dormitory to be reunited with their parents.
“I don’t know what kind of impact this long separation from parents will have on parent-child relationships,” said Masako Maeda, one of several school nurses at the Akikawa school who also evacuated Miyake. “The experience of hardship works to foster independence in some children, while others can be traumatized.”
Maeda said she has not seen any concrete evidence of damage to the children. But because many of them have recently fallen sick with colds, it is sad that parents are not there to look after them, she said.
Yet, many parents have hesitated to move their children out of the boarding school, according to the Mitanis. “Parents from Miyake are very conscious of what their fellow islanders do, and they are unlikely to move the kids out of the school unless others do,” Eriko said.
“But it is unnatural for parents and children to live separately,” Akira said. “I know people have different situations, but they should make (living with) their children the first priority.”
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