OTSUCHI, IWATE PREF. – Looking past the sacred torii arch at a Shinto shrine on the hill, summer grass spreads far and wide through traces of a town engulfed by the massive quake-induced tsunami in March 2011.
Reconstruction progress appears to be painfully slow for the town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture, one of the areas hit hardest by the disaster in the northeast.
Worried about the lack of a suitable study environment for children, two Tokyo-based nonprofit organizations jointly launched a program last December to provide free after-school tutorials and study space — mostly for junior high students who need to prepare for high school entrance exams.
Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities, or ETIC, which has provided internship opportunities at companies for young people since the 1990s, and Katariba, which has engaged in educational activities since the early 2000s, plan to run the Otsuchi temporary schoolhouse for the next three to five years.
While more than 1 million volunteers came to Otsuchi and other areas to help clean rubble, providing human resources for nurturing the future — the young people — has become even more important now, experts say.
The Otsuchi temporary schoolhouse currently helps about 140 students in classes set up at public halls and borrowed spaces at local shrines and temples. As public transportation is still largely disrupted, the program also arranges buses for the students.
Those serving as teachers are lecturers who used to work at local cram schools, volunteers from across Japan and overseas, as well as staff members dispatched by Katariba.
“Parents and guardians, the local board of education, as well as schools shared the desire to secure by all means an environment where students can concentrate on their studies,” said Aya Kawai, one of the staff.
Kawai, 27, takes care of a wide range of managerial tasks, from liaison with administrative authorities and students’ guardians to managing the ¥60 million annual budget and being in charge of public relations.
She also keeps her eyes on the students in the self-study rooms and is seen by many of them as a trusted confidant they can easily turn to.
“In conversations (with the students) and notices to be handed to guardians, we make sure not to use words like ‘father’ and ‘mother,’ ” Kawai said. “Instead, we say ‘family member’ or ‘guardian’ because here it is a very delicate issue.”
Many Otsuchi residents perished in the tsunami. Kawai said sometimes she can sense the gloom hidden behind the students’ innocent faces.
For Naoko Matsuda, 16, who became a high school student this April, the after-school program has been more than just academic assistance. It helped her clarify her dream of becoming a nursery school teacher.
“I want to go teach children in places like developing countries where nurseries are not available,” she said.
Kawai said, “My hope for the students is to grow up into individuals who can say, ‘I’ve overcome the disaster and grown up into who I am now’ in the future.”
The program provides important experience for those serving as teachers as well.
Daisuke Kaga, 25, who is teaching English in the program based on his previous experience as a school lecturer, said he now feels the urge to return to the field of education and become a teacher again.
“I’m moved by the students’ drive and motivation,” he said. “That’s why I must make the most of every single word I say (when teaching).”
ETIC finances the program with donations from foreign foundations and other sources. It shoulders the monthly salary for those dispatched — ¥100,000 for university students and ¥150,000 for working members of society.
The initial goal of dispatching 100 people over three years has been revised upward to 200, according to ETIC.
“By acting as a go-between for those in Tokyo who want to make a contribution and matching them with the needs of the disaster-hit areas, we wanted to provide backup support to the local leaders tackling the difficult issue of reconstruction,” ETIC Director Koji Yamauchi said of the project’s aim.
He raised concerns, however. “Requests from the disaster-hit areas for assistance are on the rise, but as time passes it has become more difficult to recruit people (for the program).
“This year will be the crucial one,” he said, and called for continued support from the public.