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Japan Struggles With How To Heal ‘Children’s Hearts’

This week marked the start of the new school year for some of the areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Newly minted second graders in Rikuzentakata, Japan, begin their school year more than two weeks late after a tsunami wiped out most of the town.
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Above: Newly minted second graders in Rikuzentakata, Japan, begin their school year more than two weeks late after a tsunami wiped out most of the town.

In the deeply devastated city of Rikuzentakata, classes started more than two weeks late. The students' return highlights Japan's struggle to figure out how to care of young disaster survivors.

At Takata Elementary School, second-graders stand beside their tiny desks in their new homeroom, playing a clapping game.

To their left there is a glass wall. It looks out onto a vast landscape of debris that runs from the parking lot of the school all the way to the ocean, half a mile away.

Principal Kunio Kinoshita says there used to be offices, hotels, homes and a long row of pine trees outside the school. With all that reduced to rubble, the school now has an ocean view.

"We don't know what to do," he says. "We can't move — this is the neighborhood school. But honestly, having students try to learn while looking out at this really makes our hearts ache."

Lacking The Words

There's lots of talk of "kodomo no kokoro no care" — which literally translates into "care for children's hearts." Psychologists are training teachers, and schools like Takata are trying to hire more counselors.

Kazuo Ogino, a Tokyo psychologist, is taking part in some of the planning. He says it's a challenge because it is part of Japanese culture to hold emotions in. And children often don't have the words to express themselves.

At least a tenth of the people who lived in Rikuzentakata died. Many children rode out the disaster at school. Some watched as their fellow students were washed away.

Mai Kanno, a very poised 15-year-old, says she still wakes up hoping the city has reappeared.

Kanno was at her middle school when the earthquake hit. She cried hard then, she says. Her home disappeared. Her parents were out of town. So for a week, she was stranded at the school with a handful of other kids, waiting.

"Friends of mine who weren't at school that day died — friends I was pretty close to," she says. "I haven't been to their funeral because they're still missing."

Trying To Find Comfort

The middle school now functions as the city's largest shelter. Kanno is there to help out at a makeshift daycare center. It's run in a corner of the library by her friend's mother, Masako Ito.

Ito is a mother of three. The ocean carried away her home and her daycare business. She's using borrowed space and borrowed toys and is wearing a borrowed apron. Within this barebones existence, she's trying to comfort parents who say their kids have starting crying or wetting their beds at night.

She laments that she can't even really offer advice — this is uncharted territory.

Halfway through an interview, she says the truth is, she herself is trying navigate this: The tsunami took her husband.

Ito decided to take her kids to see their destroyed house. And to see their father's body. She says her kids have mostly kept to themselves about it all, though they occasionally say things like, "I really loved Papa."

"My middle daughter often has nightmares, saying, 'I dreamt I lost you, too,'" Ito says. "I just hold her tight and say I'm not dying. I'm alive. So we're going to see things and travel. And you're going to take care of me in my old age."

Ito is grateful for all the emergency aid that has come in. "But what I really need isn't stuff, is it?" she says.

What she needs is for people to comfort the children, she says, to tell them it's going to be OK. And what she wants is for people not to forget.

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