Japanese junior high school students in Japan are hard-working, loyal and incredibly busy. Their personalities are as varied as in any country; every class has its jokers, sweet, shy kids, quiet brainy ones, bullies… I got used to junior high school students during my time working at schools in Japan, so it might seem odd that when I was given the chance to teach at Iitate Junior High School I was anxious about what the students would be like.
Iitate Junior High School is not like other schools in Japan. It is actually a ‘temporary school’ built in Iino, Fukushima City, after the original Iitatemura was evacuated post-3.11. The March 11th 2011 earthquake actually took place after the Iitate Junior High School’s graduation ceremony.
To begin with, the school was ‘moved’ to a section of Kawamata High School, in the next town, but in August 2012 the temporary school in Iino was completed, meaning that the students and teachers could once again have their own space and a school to call their own.
Despite being 25 km from its original location, and 59 pupils being evacuated outside of the prefecture, 44% of the original students attend the school today. The drop in numbers has led to a decrease in the sizes and numbers of classes, but this is not uncommon in Japan, due to the depopulation of rural towns.
Iitate Junior High School students have had to deal with many challenges that the average 12-15 year old would never have to consider. When they were between the ages of 7 and 10 years old, they all experienced the trauma of 3.11 and the ensuing evacuation from their hometown, separation from friends and family members, panic about radiation warnings, not to mention the stigma and prejudice that unfortunately still comes with having been a resident of a town within the 20 km area of the infamous nuclear power plant.
Immediately after the disaster, the students had to be aware about radiation levels and wear masks and long sleeved shirts even in hot weather. For this reason, when they went on a school trip to Tokyo at the end of March 2011, the trip was mostly so that the students could relax a little, be free of the strict rules they had to abide by usually, and also have time to reflect a bit on what had happened and how they were feeling.
Despite my worries, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted upon arriving at Iitate JHS with the same smiling, cheeky faces that I had in the schools I previous worked at. I was shown around the school by third-years, who did the entire tour in English – they were amazing!
They explained the different rooms of the school, pausing for a number of minutes in the main hall where a huge photograph of their ‘real’ school scales across the entire space of the walls. The deputy head teacher explained that it gave the kids inspiration to see their old school and keep it in their minds every day.
One thing that struck me about the school is how little it fitted my image of what a ‘temporary school’ would look like. It is not made of wood or corrugated iron, it is not cold and depressing. The school doesn’t look ‘temporary’ at all.
It is bright, with lots of natural light. The gym has been rented out from a local factory, and it too is well-lit, and heated with gas stoves – very unusual for a Japanese school!! School projects decorate the walls of the main school buildings, new equipment fills the classrooms. The school has even been commended for its focus on teaching students about their town’s local traditions and food in a class called ‘Hometown Studies’.
The majority of the teachers are young, the head teacher and deputy head teacher speak fluent English and the students appear to be no different from JHS kids in any school. During the English class I helped out at, I slipped into my old routine of trying to make friends with the kids who obviously didn’t like English, making jokes with them to help them enjoy the lesson.
At lunch-time, the first-years sat with me were nervous and shy, as I would be too if sat on a table with a weird white blonde woman who I had never seen before, but I gradually got them to talk to me by asking about their favourite sports. By the end of lunch, we were playing rock, paper, scissors to see who would have to clear up our lunch trays. (It was me.)
After lunch, I held a class with the third-years. I spoke to them about my experiences over the last five years in Japan.
I decided to pursue studying Japanese in university 5 months before 3.11, and since then my life has changed in ways I could never have imagined. I wanted to hear about their experiences since 2011, but I was wary of making them feel uncomfortable or bringing back bad memories, so I decided to focus on a broader topic, based on my current job of sharing information about Fukushima on this blog. The topic was “What would you like to tell the world?”
The kids split into groups and chatted about their ideas. After a few minutes of discussion, these are some of the answers they came up with.
We want to show our gratitude for the support we received after 3.11
We want to say thank you for helping after the disaster
We want to tell people how delicious food from Fukushima is
We want to tell the world ‘Fukushima is not just radiation’
We want to tell the world that we are normal Junior High School students
I was really moved by the positivity and maturity of their answers. I can’t imagine if I was a JHS that I would have chosen to express my gratitude for help after a terrible experience. I would probably have wanted to tell my story. This made me realise that I have a lot to learn from the pupils.
Next we brainstormed how the students could actually get their voices heard. I tried not to give them many pointers or hints, but by themselves they came up with ideas such as collaborating with celebrities and doing TV commercials, advertising with famous brands, sharing videos on social media, and giving presentations to students throughout Japan and even abroad (with the help of Skype as a means of giving a presentation).
One interesting and unique idea was that of creating a Fukushima version of PPAP (which is a massive hit in Japan) which was kindly acted out by one of the more outgoing students in the class, as can be seen below.
The lyrics would be something like this…
“I have a Fuku. I have a Shima. Ughhh. Fuku Shima”
This was the same student who decided to propose to me during the “Questions and Answers” section of the class.
The kid’s performance of the song was recorded, and watching the clip now makes me cry with laughter. It may seem like a silly idea, but his group had hit on one very important way of sharing information – viral videos. These students are smart, proactive and inspiring. They have a very strong pride for their hometown, an understanding of the importance of friends and family and the ability to achieve huge things when working together with others.
For work experience the students have done projects such as studying local folk stories, and presenting them on calendars, which they created and sold as far away as Tokyo in order to spread awareness of their town.
During recent months the students have been visiting their hometown, researching the current situation and coming up with ways that they can be involved with reconstruction of the area in the future. They have welcomed students from junior high schools in Gifu and Hiroshima to visit their school, so that they can share their experiences and ideas. Many of the students have been active and vocal at public events around the country. I sort of wish that they had been given the opportunity to teach me for an hour!
Former residents will be able to return to Iitate Town after 31st March 2017, and the teachers and students are looking forward to moving back to their original school building later in the year.
I think that if it were me, I would have mixed feelings about moving back after spending 6 years away, but I suppose the connection you feel with your hometown, especially one which you have been forced to be apart from, must be quite a painful thing.
I am looking forward to keeping in touch with the teachers and students, and I can’t wait to hear about all of the amazing things that they get up to. I will document them here as much as I can!