The Love of Education
The emperor of Japan visited the Kawauchi Elementary School last Autumn. There is a commemorative stone near the entrance to mark the event. The school children run past it on the way into school in the morning and out again in the afternoon. If they notice it they seem not to react to the honour. It makes their school special for parents and newspapers. But for the kids, their is school is special anyway.
The building is spacious and airy; the windows large and the floors and ceilings all polished wood and beams. The building is very beautiful but that is not what makes the school special. At 3:30pm as the school day finishes, the teachers (all of who seem to be quite young and wearing tracksuits) walk the children out, past the Emperor’s stone, and line them up to wait for the buses to take them home. The yellow-hatted first graders giggle and squirm as they wait. Noisy and naughty like six-year olds everywhere they are feral at this time of day and after climbing onto the buses rattle around the insides looking for distractions. Indeed as the teachers wave them good-bye, two small hands flap against the back window of the second bus; wishing the teachers desperate farewells. The hands are small against the emptiness of the bus’s back seats, the boy and girl, unable to continue the amusements of the queue in their isolation, look sad to be leaving. They are the only two children on the bus and they have nothing to do but wave. They are heading home to a town in a landscape that does not have a lot of young children anymore. This time two years ago in fact no one lived here at all.
After the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11th 2011 the town of Kawauchi swelled as it took in over a thousand homeless people from Tomioka on the coast. The tsunami could not reach this hill town of course but the sound of the explosions at the nearby Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant could and by March 15th the town was empty due to fear of radiation.
Yet Kawauchi is slowly recovering now it seems. One of the first places affected by radiation to re-open, the contamination readings are quite low and people are starting to make their lives here again. A lot of the topsoil has been removed and people are planting crops and setting up homes among the fields once more. A vegetable factory recently opened. Though if the area can ever regain the trust of the food consumer remains to be seen but there is hope that Kawauchi’s famous mushrooms will be a favourite of Japanese dishes as before. Most importantly however is the fact that some children have returned.
Even before the Fukushima disaster rural Tohoku had a problem with shrinking and ageing populations. Fears of radioactive contamination, and pointedly its effect on children, has unfortunately kept many from returning after they evacuated. In 2011 the number of students at the school stood at 114. This year there are only 24 across the first 6 grades. The first grade has a mere seven students: five boys and one girl. Grades three and four however have just one student each.
The teachers, all of whom were sent to the town from other areas of Fukushima when the school re-opened in April 2012, seem genuinely to love their posting here. Living in a school apartment building with other teachers from the elementary school and nearby junior high school and away from family and friends who are often in distant parts of the prefecture, they take the care of these kids very seriously. That reopening year there were only 16 students yet they have been surprised at how easily the kids have coped with the trauma of evacuation and a somewhat lonely return. Only one child was unable to get over the sounds of the explosions at the plant: Every-time it would thunder she would get very scared. All the teachers and other staff had to help her; talk to her; tell her it was going to be okay. It took just two weeks for the girl to believe them.
There is a deep skill and love in their teaching here. They know that the children are missing out on the normality of many friends and classmates and it is difficult for them so they fill in the spaces with a generosity of spirit that is humbling. We watched children practising athletics in the dusty, de-contaminated sports field. Athletics is a sport that individuals can do against the clock or each other because there are not enough students for a football or baseball team. All the teachers I met in this school seemed very genuine and gentle. Most importantly though they seemed to recognise that the children themselves were special. Just dealing with unreality of their school days here on the edges of the Fukushima exclusion zone takes a degree of bravery and determination that many children could not easily match.