By Masahiro Sakita and Kanako Ichihara / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersIt has been seven years since the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and more and more elementary and junior high schools are reopening in municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture where evacuation orders have been lifted. Yet as five towns and villages join the list this spring, bringing to nine the number of municipalities where classes have resumed, the number of children enrolled is less than one-tenth of that prior to the disaster.
For municipalities in Fukushima, the return of households with young children is critical to recovery. Building new school buildings, offering free school lunches, launching pick-up and drop-off bus services — these hugely expensive projects to boost attendance hint at the desperation of local governments.
Numerous kids bused in
A “selection show” was held to choose new school uniforms last fall at the temporary school building for Iitate Junior High School, operated by Iitate village in Fukushima.
The meeting was held so students could pick one of two uniform patterns newly designed for the school’s reopening in Iitate village this spring.
Both uniforms were designed free of charge by famed designer Hiroko Koshino. When students modeling the uniforms appeared, cries of “kawaii” (cute) came from the audience. Students voted for such items as a navy blue blazer and blue-check skirt for the uniform.
A new combined elementary and junior high school building, with construction costing a total of ¥3.5 billion, is ready.
In the five municipalities — the towns of Tomioka, Namie, and Kawamata, and the villages of Katsurao and Iitate — where elementary and junior high schools reopen locally this April, the number of students expected to attend is 132. Of these, 75 are from Iitate.
The number looks significantly higher compared to the other four towns and villages, but the majority of students will actually be bused in from the city of Fukushima, where they have lived since evacuating. They are not returning with family to their village homes.
With few children returning, the five municipalities are reopening schools that combine several schools under one roof.
An example setup is science labs and other rooms on the first floor, the elementary school on the second, and junior high on the third. As a result, there will effectively be only one school in each municipality. Thus, each local government utilized the national government’s reconstruction budget to construct the school buildings and improve their educational environment.
Tomioka spent about ¥860 million on projects such as installing air conditioners in every classroom of its completely renovated school building. The town of Namie offers school lunches and other services free of charge.
Despite such incentives, few children are applying. “There’s actually a sincere feeling of relief that the number of applicants wasn’t zero,” a senior official in one of the local government’s board of education revealed. “We can’t predict at all what lies ahead, and have no ingenious ideas to boost the number of kids.”
In Kawamata, about ¥400 million was spent building a pool with a retractable roof. Fifteen students will return to school in April, but with none in fifth grade or under, the elementary school will be forced to suspend operations if no new children enroll in the 2019 school year.
Local residents mobilize
As long as the younger generations and children do not return, hometowns will have a hard time recovering. Those residents who have come back are mobilizing.
This spring, Namie will open Namie Sosei Elementary and Junior High School. At the municipal housing complex nearby, there are currently 40 tulip planters lined up. Nineteen residents are tending to the flowers, which will be used to decorate the new school building and welcome the children.
“The only people who have returned to the town are the elderly,” said Hidezo Sato, 72, chairman of the administrative ward headman’s association. “Having kids here gives us purpose.”
To keep the school alive, the local government is also hoping to take advantage of help from local residents. Namie has built a “clubhouse” inside the school building for children to interact with locals. In Iitate, there is a plan to start “hometown education,” wherein elderly residents will be invited to teach kids things like how to make local dishes.
Challenges lie ahead
Even after reopening, the challenges will be relentless. Long-distance commuting by bus is one example. In the villages of Katsurao and Iitate, children will come to school from the places they evacuated to, such as Fukushima city, traveling an hour or more along bumpy mountain roads and other routes.
It is quite taxing on children in lower grades, and many parents have voiced their concern.
Eleven-year-old Sakura Watanabe — a fifth-grader from Katsurao living in public housing for disaster evacuees in Miharu, Fukushima — will commute by bus about 25 kilometers each way starting in April. She is currently studying at a temporary school building in Miharu and wished to enroll at Katsurao school together with her friends.
But her father Masahiro, 42, a restaurant manager, voiced concern, saying: “I wonder if it’s safe to travel on those narrow roads. Will the younger kids be able to handle long-distance commuting?”
The unease grows when considering other issues, such as the roads freezing over during winter.
Ensuring high-quality classes
In the four municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture where schools have already reopened locally, efforts are being made to ensure quality is maintained, despite low student numbers.
An elementary school in the Odaka district of Minamisoma reopened last spring. This spring, 66 children are expected to attend. A multiple homeroom teacher system will be employed to run combined lessons in a school building for what had been four separate schools prior to the disaster.
The sixth-graders have four teachers, one from each of the schools, and the other grades have two or more homeroom teachers. They give careful attention during class, helping students on the spot to work out the areas they struggle in. For certain subjects, classes are split and taught by academic ability.
ICT (information and communication technology) education is also a draw. The school introduced 20 tablet devices that the children can use to record and review their performance in physical education classes and look up information for their studies. It is the only school in the city where an assistant language teacher is stationed permanently.
Helping households with small children is also a challenge.
Elementary and junior high schools in the village of Kawauchi reopened in spring 2012. Having started with a total of 30 students, it will have 64 when the new school year starts. But that is still less than 40 percent of the 166 that were there before the disaster. Compared to the fact that about 70 percent of residents returned to the village overall, households with young children are not coming back.
For the 2014 school year, the village started providing ¥30,000 per month to subsidize high school students’ bus fares and lodging costs. In addition to offering free day care, it has set up a system to provide ¥20,000 in monthly aid to families with children aged under 3 who do not attend day care.
Since the 2016 school year, the village has also begun efforts targeting ordinary citizens who live outside Fukushima Prefecture. It provides ¥500,000 in relocation expenses for single-parent households with children junior high school-age or younger, and introduced a system to subsidize rent.
As a result of providing support for everything from finding a job to finding a place to live, seven households comprising 16 people have relocated to the village from Tokyo, Aichi Prefecture and elsewhere. “We promote the village as a place that puts effort into childcare and education,” said a village spokesperson. “Due to the slow return [of former residents], we want to actively attract city dwellers.”