22 Mai 2018
May 16, 2018
Seven Years Later, Class is Back in Session
- Rodrigue Maillard
Many municipalities affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident are on the way to recovery. The village of Iitate is one of them.
The evacuation order for most of the village was lifted last year and a new school opened this spring. Residents believe the opening marks a turning point in their town's revival.
The villagers of Iitate are celebrating the opening of the brand new school. Three elementary schools and a junior high school were combined into one facility. It cost about 32 million dollars.
75 students will attend classes here. This is the first time since the accident that children have gathered at a school in the village.
"I am so grateful for the support we’ve received from so many people over the past seven years," says a student. "During that time, I always hoped to return to Iitate. I am very moved to be here for the opening of the school."
Seven years ago, radiation leaked from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after a huge tsunami hit the area.
The entire population of Iitate was forced to evacuate. About 2,300 families moved to neighboring towns and villages. Authorities set up temporary schools outside the village.
The leaders of Iitate have been looking forward to the opening of the new school for a long time. It is the pillar of their plan to encourage former residents to return. A lot of effort went into convincing the families.
The village covers all student expenses: school uniforms, books, meals, and even fees for trips.
"A community without a school has no future," says Norio Kanno, the mayor of Iitate. "I think the key to the village's recovery is to bring back as many children as possible, and fill the village with their voices. That's the way to restore the village."
Many homes in the village remain vacant. Only 10 percent of the residents have returned. Most of the returnees are elderly people.
"There is little human interaction in the village, and I feel lonely," says one villager. "It’s sad. There are hardly any families."
School buses arrive early in the morning to pick up the children outside the village. Most children commute for one hour or more.
“I take a nap or look out the window," says one student. "I’m sleepy, so I don’t talk with the other kids.”
"It’s all right," says another. "I’m trying my best because I know I will be able to see my friends."
The Takahashis and their two children live in Fukushima City. They bought a house two years ago and have settled into urban life.
But their son, Yamato, insists on going to the village school. He doesn't want to be separated from the friends he made at the temporary school, even if it means a long commute.
"It's not us but our son who is going to the school," says Yamato's mother, Miyuki. "In the end, we decided it's important to respect his decision."
This was not an easy decision for most of the families. A third of the parents whose children attended the temporary schools decided not to send their kids to the new school.
One child's family, though, has been eagerly waiting for the school to open.
Riku Watanabe, a second grader, came here with his elder sister. His parents had enrolled him in a school close to their new home in Fukushima City. But Riku wasn’t able to cope with the new environment.
"Many students had attended cram schools, and the pace of the lessons was so fast," his father Kenji says. My son started saying he didn’t enjoy school anymore."
Riku was unable to make any friends. He often failed to hand in his homework. The family says his teacher punished him.
"He was forced to study in the hall outside the classroom," says his elder sister Rin. "I felt bad for my brother. He’s a really good kid, but he would get punished almost every day. It would have been better if it had only happened once a week."
For Riku and his family, the new school was a relief. But they still have concerns.
The authorities announced that the decontamination of the residential areas is complete. But there are still thousands of bags of radioactive waste in the village, and it may be decades before they can be removed.
Just before entering the school, Riku and Rin underwent an annual medical examination to check for the possible effects of radiation exposure.
"It looks like my kids are OK for now," says their mother, Misaki. "But good mental health is also very important. I hope my children can find peace of mind at the village school."
Many villagers believe the school could be the seed that brings its lost community back to life. But there is still a long way to go before the children and their families can once again call Iitate their home.