Shaken to the core

15th April 2011 at 01:00
When the tsunami struck Japan, many teachers, pupils, schools and their supplies were lost. Scot Neil Slorach, who teaches English in Sendai, gives a first-hand report on what remains and what can be done to help

The tsunami hit shortly before the end of the school day on Friday 11 March, a couple of weeks before the spring holiday. The children in schools all over North East Japan had just been rocked by the terrifying 8.9 earthquake, and many of them were being picked up by their parents. Some waited inside for them to arrive.

Within minutes, thousands of children, parents and teachers were swept to their deaths by the gigantic wall of black, muddy water, containing the debris of their homes and businesses.

In Japan, many schools are built on higher ground because of the constant danger of quakes and tsunamis, but not all. In places, the tsunami surged inland for five or six kilometres, easily breaching all the coastal defences. The latest estimate is that 28,000 people have lost their lives.

For those who survive, life is utterly changed. This is the end of the academic year, and Japanese elementary schools hold graduation ceremonies for those children who are moving to junior high school. In Ishinomaki, a short drive from Sendai where I live, Okawa Elementary School is mourning the deaths of more than half of the children and teachers.

There were 108 children enrolled in the school - 74 are dead or missing. Only five of the graduating class survived out of 21 pupils, and only three of the school's 13 teachers are left. If the earthquake had occurred two weeks later, the schools would have been closed for the holidays. This school, along with many others, now feels unable to hold the traditional graduation ceremonies, out of respect for the dead and their families.

Over 350,000 people are thought to have been left homeless by the disaster, including 100,000 children. For many children, relocating to the shelters was an exciting experience at first, and they were able to meet up with family and friends. The joy of their families at being alive was quickly replaced by grief and fatigue.

Weeks on, it is clear there will be no quick fix or return to normality. No country, not even one as advanced as Japan, can hope to shrug off the effects of such an unprecedented calamity. The sheer scale of the physical damage is indescribable and even photographs fail to communicate the way the infrastructure of the modern world has been wiped out, and all everyday life has become a constant struggle.

In the shelters - usually school gyms or community centre halls - hundreds of thousands of people are crammed together, with scarcely enough room to turn over when sleeping. People surround themselves with little barriers made of their few saved possessions, trying to give the impression of a private space, and there is great discomfort due to inadequate washing facilities.

Psychological stress

Far worse, though, is the psychological stress. The initial numbness of shock is wearing off, and a critical period has arrived for mental health, especially for the children. They and their parents may look "normal" on the surface, but they are carrying a great mental burden of grief for what they have lost, and fear for the future.

Many children suffer from nightmares in which they see the tsunami again. Some saw parents, teachers or classmates being swept away. Others saw bodies in the trees after the water receded. Many say they want to cry, but they cannot cry out loud because there are so many people around them in the shelter.

Lack of sleep adds to the stress, and aid workers worry that the children are suppressing their emotions. Some families can't resist the urge to go back to their home to look at the ruins of their house, perhaps to search for possessions. Once there, the reality of what has happened hits them again, and they suffer panic attacks and feel they cannot breathe.

In Japan, there are very few professional counselling services for children. There is no organisation that covers the whole country and the services that do exist are staffed by unqualified volunteers, more focused on suicide prevention than dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophe on this scale. There has been some provision of telephone counselling for adults, and some psychologists have begun visiting shelters to offer advice.

Save the Children has been very active, offering blankets, food and clean water, and working from a base in Sendai to help affected children by setting up "child-friendly spaces". Children are tremendously vulnerable in this situation, and suffer great stress through living in such restricted circumstances and witnessing the reactions of parents and other adults to grief and loss. In order to cope, and to have hope of recovery, they need relaxation and exercise, which are hard for parents to provide.

Child-friendly spaces

The "child-friendly spaces" have been set up for five to 12-year-olds, and offer them the opportunity to meet and play with children of a similar age. Toys and games are provided and parents are offered advice on how to help their offspring to cope with the short and long-term effects of trauma. The children are supervised by responsible adults, and this allows the parents some time to look for food as well as try to trace missing relatives and friends.

Understandably, children want life to go back to as normal as possible, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Emergency response officials say the evacuation centres are likely to operate for at least another two months. That may be a conservative estimate, due to the enormity of the task facing local authorities who need to provide temporary, and then permanent, housing units for 350,000 people.

In the shelters, the majority of young people long for a return to school. For traumatised children, school is an essential part of the journey to recovery. They want to be back in a "normal" situation where they can talk to friends and teachers and encourage each other.

The younger children suffer great unhappiness because they have not been able to say goodbye to lost friends at the annual graduation ceremonies. The main prefectures in the affected areas have called for an increase in the numbers of teachers. The teachers would then be allocated specific elementary and middle schools, and the plan is that they would visit children in their homes to talk to them and reassure them.

For the older children, January and February were the months when the junior high school students were under great pressure as they sat the many entrance exams to enter the high school of their parents' choice at the beginning of term in April.

Great emphasis is placed on these notoriously difficult exams and preparing for them took up a huge amount of the students' time and energy. Many attended special preparatory classes in addition to their normal ones, with the aim of securing a place at a highly-regarded school. Now these young people are in a state of limbo, not knowing what the future holds for them. Hundreds of schools have been damaged and left understaffed.

School damage

In Miyagi, the area that experienced the most damage, there were 884 public schools: 689 of these - 78 per cent - have been damaged. Of the 97 prefectural schools, 91 have been damaged. According to the education, culture, sports, science and technology ministry, the total number of schools that collapsed or were damaged on 11 March amounted to nearly 2,000 in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures alone.

Almost all the schools hope to restart with the new term next week, on 21 April, but the task of locating buildings and classrooms in which to teach is daunting. There are plans to erect temporary buildings in school grounds, but everyone agrees that they would be inadequate for the accommodation of entire junior and senior high schools. Authorities are now looking at the possibility of "borrowing" classrooms in schools that were lucky enough to be left untouched.

Many other prefectures have offered to take in displaced students and teachers. The Hiroshima Board of Education has said it would accept 160 primary children and their teachers, and provide living accommodation. In Kanagawa prefecture, near Tokyo, about 1,000 homeowners have offered to accommodate children and teachers for one year until the situation improves. Understandably, though, for people whose lives were turned upside down by the disaster, the thought of leaving their towns, however damaged, is unbearable.

Textbook shortage

Even if schools manage to locate suitable premises, the difficulties continue. Many schools have no materials, with the biggest problem being the lack of textbooks: 670,000 books have been lost or are considered unusable in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, according to the Education Ministry. The books for the new school year had been delivered to each prefecture just before the earthquake, and were lost or damaged before they were ever received by the schools.

The publishing companies, who are required by law to provide the textbooks for each academic year, are considering reprinting the books, but many warehouses which stored paper were destroyed. Even if paper is sourced elsewhere, the time it will take to reprint and redistribute books means that schools will inevitably begin the new session without a major resource.

The estimated cost of replacing textbooks is pound;2.5m, in addition to the pound;445m needed in Miyagi alone to make existing school buildings safe and rebuild others.

The task of rebuilding the education system in the disaster area is almost incomprehensibly huge. There are many psychological and emotional problems ahead for the children who have suffered this experience, and the teachers who are trying to help them are themselves also victims.

Never forget

I have lived among the Japanese people for several years and I admire their stoicism, capacity for endurance, and determination to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as well as their respect for education. But I worry that the rest of the world has now passed on to other news and other concerns, and is in danger of forgetting about the children and families who continue to need help.

I appeal to Scottish teachers to talk to their pupils about what has happened, and is happening here and to consider if there is any way schools in Scotland can help.

Neil Slorach has been teaching English in "conversation schools" in Japan for five years. He travels to different centres and teaches children from pre-five to 18 years old.

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