Students return to school in Japan's disaster zone

AP News
Posted: Apr 21, 2011 10:54 AM
Students return to school in Japan's disaster zone

In the gray of early morning, plastic curtains are pulled back from the school gym's windows and 260 evacuees sleeping on blankets stir to life under basketball hoops. For 13-year-old Yuka Chiba, it's the first day of eighth grade.

Yuka hasn't been at school since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami destroyed much of her neighborhood. On Thursday, with the new school year starting, she gets ready to go back.

Yuka shuffles across the cold, hardwood floor in a flannel shirt she wears as pajamas to the large heaters near the door. There is no need to rush, she only has to walk next door to the main building of the Shishiori Junior High School for class.

In the Japan's disaster zone, the school year that normally starts in early April is starting slightly later than usual, with many schools opening this week under an aura of tragedy.

In Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which bore the brunt of the damage from the disasters, more than 1,000 students and teachers are dead or missing, out of an overall death toll that could top 25,000. With temporary housing still being built, many students are living in their own school's gymnasiums, while dealing with the loss of relatives, homes and classmates.

Psychologists and school counselors from around the country are being trained and sent to the hardest-hit areas to help students deal with the mental strain.

"I want to go back to a normal life. Here, you have to be careful all of the time, you can't really relax," Chiba says.

Classrooms in the area will be crowded, with 200 schools requiring replacement or major renovations. Thousands more need repairs and hundreds are being used as shelters.

Yuka, who says she hates science, is excited about starting classes in the school in Kesennuma in Iwate prefecture. But it won't be easy to study. Her home now is a tiny spot on the floor near the gym doors, where there is a constant flow of people to the portable bathrooms outside.

She plays on the school tennis team, but even that remains uncertain following the disaster.

"They started building temporary housing in the grounds yesterday, so I'm not sure if we'll be able to play tennis or not," she said.

Breakfast is served at 7 a.m., and her father, Hiroaki, lines up for the family's ration _ snack bread in plastic packages and small bottles of water.

A single TV shows the morning news near the gym's stage, which is packed with supplies and desks with paperwork, and loudspeakers blast out public announcements throughout the morning.

"I feel bad for the kids that are starting school like this," the father says. " We're just taking it day-by-day, it doesn't do any good to get too stressed out."

At 7:30 a.m., Yuka brushes her teeth and spits in the gutter outside, goes to a small changing room for women to put on her black skirt and blazer and then sits with her family while she does her hair in a small hand mirror. Her father fusses over it when she finishes, and her mother, Mitsuko, repeatedly runs a lint remover over her only child's blazer before her parents say goodbye and leave to do the day's laundry.

They lost everything they own in the tsunami.

Nearby, Mizuki Kumagai, 13, stands up in his family's area near the center of the gym and puts on his black uniform with gold buttons in plain sight.

His mother, father, grandmother, brother and sister watch. With time to spare, he pulls out his deck of battle cards from the "Duel Masters" game _ he and his friends are addicted _ and plays a round.

"I'm glad that they're starting school, but we'll miss hearing their voices and laughter in the shelter," says his mother, Fujiko.

At 8 a.m. Mizuki, Yuka and a few others put on their oversized blue backpacks and walk 30 seconds to the main school building. Dozens gather near the class lists, which tell the students the crucial information of who they will be studying with for the year.

On the school grounds behind them, workers lay dirt where temporary housing is to be built, just in front of a military camp where half a dozen large camouflage trucks are parked. In one corner, evacuees have erected stoves, where they burn wooden debris from their neighborhood to stay warm.

A few minutes later in their classrooms, Yuka huddles and laughs with her friends, while Mizuki grabs a classmate from behind to wrestle. Everyone hushes and sits when the teachers arrive and write out instructions on the chalkboards.

"They've all suffered, but they're still so energetic," says teacher Satoshi Saito. "I feel bad that we won't have the facilities to do everything we normally do, like sports tournaments and ceremonies."

With the gymnasium occupied, about a hundred students line up at 8:30 and cram into the music room for a ceremony to mark the start of the school year. A teacher tells Mizuki and his friends to close the top button on their blazers for the formal occasion. A few students have no uniforms and wear track suits.

"There are many here who have lost their homes and their families, and there are others who weren't affected. We have students under many different conditions. Everyone needs to take care and have compassion," says principal Tetsuya Murakami.

Then, in a gesture meant to inspire the students, he holds up a paper where he has written the Japanese character for "inochi." Life.