Educator brings fresh learning opportunities to Tohoku youths

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

For Kumi Imamura, 35, an award-winning educator, setting up a place of learning for children in the disaster-hit Tohoku region was the natural next step in her career.

As head of Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Katariba, which offers educational programs for high school students, Imamura decided to establish after-school facilities in Tohoku where disaster-hit students from elementary to high school age could study and pursue their dreams.

In April 2011, about a month after the deadly earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on the region, Imamura headed north in search of ways to provide aid to the survivors. Reconstruction was a priority amid the destruction, but she realized there was also a vital, immediate need to re-establish an educational environment.

She recalled an encounter in Iwate Prefecture with Yusaku Yoshida, a high school student who seemed “withdrawn and traumatized” after witnessing so many people being swept away by the giant waves.

As she met other young people during her visit, she became determined to reduce their suffering and help them find the motivation and strength to survive.

In July 2011, she established the NPO’s first of two after-school “collaboration schools,” in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. The facilities help students with their studies, offer project-based workshops and, most importantly, provide mental care to help them deal with their trauma and sorrow.

In the initial stage, the Onagawa facility actually became a temporary school for children whose schools had been swept away by tsunami.

The second facility was established in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, in December 2011.

Through collaboration with local authorities and volunteers willing to help children rebuild their confidence, the schools also engage students in project-based studies to solve social issues in their communities.

“The boy, having seen people swallowed by the devastating tsunami, initially became withdrawn and isolated. But through participation in the projects offered at the school, he has found motivation to tell other young people his story,” Imamura said of Yoshida.

After joining workshops at Imamura’s school, Yoshida became interested in studying disaster prevention. While living in a temporary housing, he applied for a scholarship and will enter a university in Chiba Prefecture in April.

He hopes in the future to be able to contribute to the community he grew up in and initiate measures to ensure it is better-prepared to withstand another disaster, Imamura said.

What she had in mind for Tohoku was setting up an extension of what she had been doing with Katariba across the nation — getting volunteer university students to hold workshops with high school students, share their concerns and help them nurture their aspirations for the future.

In Tohoku, Imamura wanted to engage high schoolers in work that would improve the quality of life in their communities. She said the various community-based projects are helping students gain something more than knowledge and confidence.

“They have been organizing projects for the elderly and children. They’ve been even luring visitors with stargazing tours, helping promote Otsuchi as a town of beautiful starry skies so it isn’t just remembered as a disaster-struck area,” Imamura said.

“Most of the areas struck by the disaster are still undergoing reconstruction, which will continue for the next 20 years. They’ve lost too much, and without a helping hand they would have had no chance to study or gain motivation.”

The Katariba program, which became the basis of her Tohoku initiative, goes back to her university years in Tokyo.

Imamura actually grew up in rural Gifu Prefecture. Unlike many of her classmates and other young people in the area, she decided to step out of her comfort zone and left her hometown for Tokyo to enter Keio University. There, she said, she benefited most from an opportunity to learn to analyze and solve problems independently.

As a young woman with high aspirations, Imamura was always puzzled by the apparent lack of ambition among youths — a sense that she believed was crucial to the future of every teenager, as well as to the future of Japan.

“Children in Japan are busy preparing for exams to enter high schools and colleges, with emphasis on rote memorization,” Imamura said. Feeling that the existing educational methods were dulling children’s motivation, she lamented that many young people, regardless of the availability of educational resources, fail to broaden their visions for the future.

She wanted to provide children with a chance to widen their perspectives, to utilize their potential while they are still young and creative.

Before graduating from Keio University in 2002, Imamura started the Katariba program in 2001. It later became the name of her NPO.

She describes Katariba as a “place of sharing,” an opportunity given to high school students to discuss their concerns and listen to the failure stories shared by volunteer university students dispatched to their schools.

“As there is not a large age difference between high school and university students, teenagers can benefit from their senior guides as role models,” Imamura said.

What started as a program with only two staff members, including herself, Katariba has grown to an NPO with a staff of 89, including interns, with four regional offices on top of the two Tohoku facilities it runs.

The group gets financial support from the central government and local municipalities and runs primarily on donations from individuals and companies that support its ideas. Monthly fees are paid by participants at its Tohoku facilities.

In the past 14 years, as many as 180,000 students at around 1,000 high schools nationwide have participated in the Katariba program.

Katariba’s workshops include classes where college and university students share their experiences and help students broaden their perspectives to succeed there. Other programs are aimed at helping students make career choices through organizing company tours or other events, where students can learn about work life.

Even before the March 2011 disasters, Imamura’s activities had been recognized by several awards, including Nikkei Woman magazine’s Woman of the Year award in 2008 and the government’s Challenge Award for Women in 2009. In 2014, she won the Nikkei Social Initiative Award for her project in Tohoku.

Through the Katariba program and Tohoku project, Imamura has noticed that a lack of educational opportunities, especially in disaster-hit areas, does not necessarily play a pivotal role in underachievement. She pointed out that even many of those children who have easy access to various resources often find little to stimulate them to acquire or use their knowledge.

“In a certain way children from disaster-hit areas have been given a chance to share a sense of crisis, which as a result has motivated them to pursue knowledge and broaden their skills,” she said.

Imamura said she hopes the concept of engaging youth in resolving social problems in communities will become a nationwide movement.

“I want to raise children’s awareness and help them become more socially conscious, so they themselves can make a difference in society.”

2001 — Establishes nonprofit organization Katariba.
2002 — Graduates from Keio University.
2005 — Katariba is granted corporate status.
2008 — Nikkei Woman magazine’s Woman of the Year.
2009 — Wins the Challenge Award for Women from the Japanese government.
July 2011 — Establishes the first “collaboration school” in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture.
December 2011 — Establishes the second collaboration school in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture.
2012 — Is honored by the Foundation for Encouragement of Social Contribution for her contributions to rebuilding the Tohoku region.
2014 — Wins the Nikkei Social Initiative Award for her efforts in Tohoku.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to .