Kobe teacher taps time at helm of student-run quake-shelter newspaper to boost sense of community

JIJI

Sanae Nakajima clearly remembers the disarray at an elementary school in Kobe as more than 2,000 displaced residents sought shelter in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which left 6,434 people dead and about 43,800 injured.

After her home was heavily damaged by the predawn quake, Nakajima and her family took refuge at the school.

Three days after the quake, a newspaper started to be published at the school to provide evacuees with vital information, such as how relief supplies would be distributed.

After the first two issues were created by teachers at the school, children took over the task. Nakajima, then a high school freshman hoping someday to become an elementary school teacher, took the role of chief editor and led a team of about 20 elementary school students.

The young reporters interviewed quake-affected people and volunteer workers to gather useful information to publish in the paper. By the time the school shelter was closed at the end of July 1995, they had published 86 issues.

The handwritten articles and illustrations communicated the children’s enthusiasm to do what they could for the displaced residents. The paper comforted evacuees who had lost loved ones or homes in the 7.3 magnitude temblor that violently jolted Kobe and its vicinity.

“Let’s express our feelings of gratitude in words more clearly,” one story urged shelter residents. Another reads, “Greeting others can relieve anxieties about quakes.”

“It was fun to produce the newspaper,” recalled Nakajima, 39, who achieved her dream of becoming an elementary school teacher in Kobe. “We may have helped the shelter run smoothly.”

Nakajima received a teaching qualification and passed an employment exam in 2008. Around the same time, she came across copies of the shelter newspaper on her late grandfather’s bookshelf.

Hoping to share her memories so her students could value the bonds in the community, Nakajima started using the newspaper in her classes on disaster education at the city-run Nagisa Elementary School. The paper was also used in a reference book published by the Kobe Municipal Government for education on disaster preparedness.

The Jan. 17, 1995, earthquake registered the maximum 7 on the Japanese intensity scale at some locations — the first time that designation was used. With residents who didn’t experience the quake currently accounting for more than 40 percent of its population, Kobe faces the challenge of passing on the lessons of the disaster to young people.

On Jan. 11, ahead of the 23rd anniversary of the earthquake, Nakajima showed copies of the newspaper in a class for fourth-graders.

She encouraged her students to think about the reasons children at the shelter continued to write for the newspaper.

“I think it was because adults had many problems,” one student answered.

Another said, “They probably wanted to put smiles on people’s faces.”

Nakajima then asked what her students could do in their community. Answers included taking part in local events and establishing close relationships by greeting others.

“There are things you can do for the sake of the community,” Nakajima told her students.