Japan Struggles With How To Heal 'Children's Hearts'

Apr 22, 2011
Originally published on April 22, 2011 10:38 am

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

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 for 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, a half-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 is a lot 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 one-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 day care 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 day care business. She is using borrowed space and borrowed toys and is wearing a borrowed apron. Within this bare-bones existence, she is trying to comfort parents who say their kids have started 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 to 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 dreamed 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 of 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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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

We go now to northern Japan. This week marked the start of the new school year for some of the areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

(Soundbite of children)

KELLY: In some places, classes were delayed due to the devastation. But even as schools now open, there's a larger challenge that will take much longer to address.

As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, Japan is struggling to figure out how to care for the young survivors of the disasters.

(Soundbite of classroom)

YUKI NOGUCHI: Second-graders at Takata Elementary School in the devastated city of Rikuzen-Takata stand beside their tiny desks in their new homeroom playing a clapping game.

(Soundbite of clapping)

NOGUCHI: To their left there's 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.

Kunio Kinoshita is the principal of Takata Elementary.

Mr. KUNIO KINOSHITA (Principal, Takata Elementary School): (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: Kinoshita describes what used to exist outside the school: offices, hotels, homes, and a long row of pine trees. With all that reduced to rubble, the school now has an ocean view.

Mr. KINOSHITA: (Through translator) We don't know what to do. 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.

NOGUCHI: There's lots of talk here 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.

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

(Soundbite of children laughing)

Ms. MAI KANNO (Student): (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: Not far away at the middle school, Mai Kanno is a very poised 15 years old. She says she still wakes up hoping the city has reappeared. Kanno was at her school when the earthquake hit.

I 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.

Ms. KANNO: (Through translator) Friends of mine who weren't at school that day died, friends I was pretty close to. I haven't been to their funerals because they're still missing.

NOGUCHI: 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.

Ms. MASAKO ITO: (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: 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.

Ms. ITO: (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: It's not like I can even offer advice, she laments. This is uncharted territory.

Halfway through our interview, she says the truth is she herself is trying to 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.

Ms. ITO: (Through translator) My middle daughter often has nightmares, saying I dreamt I lost you too. 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.

NOGUCHI: Ito is grateful for all the emergency aid that's come in. But what I really need isn't stuff, is it, she says. What I need is for people to comfort the children, to tell them it's going to be OK. And what I want is for people not to forget.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Rikuzen-Takata, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.