Evacuees on the road from ruin

15th April 2011 at 01:00
Japan: For many children from disaster-stricken Miyagi and Fukushima, the new school year is starting a long way from home

At a downtown Tokyo school, young children fizz about the playground during break, their cries a soundtrack to an urban landscape that feels as unremarkable as any pre-disaster spring I can recall in the city.

But aftershocks have jolted and alarmed its residents almost daily since the earthquake struck 370km north of Tokyo, while the unseen menace of radioactive Fukushima 250km away has caused some families, particularly those with infants, to bolt to safety in the south, the west and even abroad.

Overall, life continues as normal in the capital. As dependable as the cherry blossoms that emerge at the height of spring, school graduation ceremonies, too, were being observed briefly before the school year started anew this month.

Virtually unscathed by the stronger tremors felt further north, students, parents and teachers consider themselves pardoned, for the moment, from the worst that nature habitually inflicts on these islands.

But along the worst-hit areas of the north-eastern coast, schools were smashed like paper lanterns. Further inland, it was often tremor-proof school buildings that survived best and are now home to the dispossessed and those fleeing from the evacuation zone around the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

No one seems to know when normal school life in the worst-affected areas might resume. Many children have been left orphaned after the quake hit at 2.46pm on 11 March. Dozens of schools have been destroyed or left too badly damaged to use.

In a Blitz-like spirit of defiance, other evacuees from the devastation have been determined to carry on with planned school graduation ceremonies.

Certificates rescued from the rubble and splattered with dirt were handed out at one ceremony for elementary-school pupils in Miyagi prefecture. Their school was destroyed, so the formalities were conducted in the gym of another school still standing in the district.

Following such ceremonies, pupils have expressed their deep feelings of uncertainty as there are few plans to resume studies for most, while others are attempting to start over elsewhere in the country.

Many of those who graduated from the Miyagi school are scheduled to evacuate the city and move to another area.

Other pupils evacuated from the Fukushima area are starting the new school year in Tokyo - living away from their parents who remain further north to work and attempt to get life back on track.

For those living outside the nuclear exclusion zone, officials in the Fukushima region have tried to allay fears that schools and nurseries could have dangerously high radiation levels. All of the 1,400 schools and nurseries in the area are undergoing emergency tests as the schools plan to reopen.

Important steps are being taken to get the school system up and running again, but it will be some time before the children who survived the worst of the disaster are able to play with the same abandon as their fellow pupils in the capital.

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