International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Japan’s schoolchildren prepare for future emergencies

By Hler Gudjonsson IFRC

On a wide strip of land close to the sea, an ancient little Shinto shrine is still the only structure in sight. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed almost every house in the low lying parts of Hisanohama, a small town in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

Five years have passed since the disaster, but the town is still under reconstruction, and many of the children who live there still have lingering feelings of insecurity. 

“I sometimes feel scared when I see news about disasters on television,” said 11-year-old Haruma Kobayashi, who is a fifth grade student at Hisanohama Elementary School. He was only seven years old at the time but he still remembers how terrifying it was when the tsunami destroyed his hometown and radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant forced everyone to abandon the town for a long period.

 

Together with all the other children in his school Haruma attends the Red Cross youth disaster preparedness programme that is a regular activity in his school.  “I have learned what I need to do to save my life if there is a tsunami and how important it is to cooperate with others in a disaster situation,” said Haruma.

“Understanding the risks and limitations of natural disasters makes the students more confident that they are going to be safe, and also makes them take their responsibilities very seriously,” said the school principal, Mr. Kouji Matsumoto, who helped to design the Red Cross youth programme and teaching materials. The programme is being implemented in many schools across Japan.

Mr Matsumoto recalled an incident  from one of the regular disaster preparedness exercises when the students had to evacuate the school and move to higher ground. “It made me very happy when I saw that the older children spontaneously held the hands of the smaller ones and took responsibility for them while they were walking to a safer place,” he said.

Children in Hisanohama in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture release balloons in commemoration of those who lost their lives in the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami 11 March 2011.

During the ancient Japanese Tanabata Festival in July and August every year, boys and girls write their wishes and dreams on strips of paper and hang them on wishing trees made of bamboo.

“Our children write that they want to go home to their old house or that they want to solve their family’s problem. Their experiences have made them much more conscious of how important family and a secure home are for their happiness and wellbeing,” said Mr. Matsumoto.

In a way the disaster has forced the children in Hisanohama to grow up faster than their peers who have lived in a safe and protected environment.

“I was only a first grader at the time of the disaster so I did not understand very well what was happening,” said Miyu Sato who is in 6th grade of Hisanohama Elementary School. “But I remember that we could not take a bath for many days and how depressed and hopeless people became when their future was so uncertain. I think all this has taught me how valuable it is to have a normal life,” she said, displaying wisdom beyond her age.”

One of the factors that greatly reduced the impact of the tsunami was a belt of oak trees that had originally been planted as a barrier to protect the town from the sea during the 19th century.  As a part of their disaster preparedness activities the children replanted this grove on the side of the big seawall that has been built along the coast to stop the next tsunami.

The old shrine stands alone below the seawall, still surrounded by bulldozers and excavators in the middle of a huge construction site. Allowing the shrine to remain where it is was one of the recurring wishes of the children during the Tanabata festival this year. Their wish has been fulfilled and the small structure continues to kindle the hopes of people in Hisanohama, reminding them that although it will take time, the town will eventually be restored and people will be able to return to their homes.

 

A Geiger counter shows the level of radiation on the school grounds of Hisanohama Elementary School, Hisanohama town, Iwaki, Fukushima.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies