I arrived in Japan with so little experience of teaching children that I sometimes wonder if they can tell that I am learning almost as much in class as they are. Many of my students are 11 and 12 years old and, while it may be a cliché, I have found them to be by turns funny, rude, cheeky and occasionally aggravating. They are never dull. Full of curiosity, each with their own obsessions – from collecting animation cards to drawing comics, as well as the ubiquitous baseball and football – it is mostly a pleasure to be around them.
In recent weeks, our experience of aftershocks in class has made me realise how well they are coping with everything. It must be especially difficult to be in that ‘tween’ age group, expected to be a little bit braver than younger siblings, but still enough of a kid to worry about the concern shown on the faces of previously dependable parents and teachers. If they are, they seem to be containing it well. The games are just as boisterous, the groans for homework still loud and the laughter at sensei when she does some clowning around remains genuine enough to be one of the perks of my day.
This, however, is the reaction of kids safely away from the centres of destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami. In Miyagi, one school gathered together to mourn the deaths of 70 percent of their classmates on the forty-ninth day since the disaster, a day when Buddhists believe the soul leaves this world. Cleaning and rebuilding the school in the coming months may be achievable, but comfort for the survivors when the empty desks and chairs can never be filled will be more elusive.
14,564 is the number of recorded deaths to date from the Tohoku earthquake, with another 11,356 missing and perhaps never to be found, despite huge efforts. As numbers they are difficult to process, it is a struggle to imagine what so many people would look like if they were standing all in one place, then suddenly gone. Such numbers daze us, causing a numbness that can protect from the pain of a tragedy, but also leave us inured to the suffering of individuals.
So to break through that numb feeling, read an account by 12 year-old Yuta Hakoishi from Iwate of his feelings following the death of his father. In writing it, he displays maturity and courage that I might assume were beyond his years, had it not been for the members of his peer group that I have encountered recently:
When I touched my father’s face it was colder than water. In my mind I kept thinking, ‘Why did you go back?’ Then I kept telling myself, ‘What good is it for me to worry?’ but the more I said it, the more tears welled up in my eyes.
I saw the titanium accessory that my father had worn, a good-luck ankle charm that he bought in Tokyo, and his wedding ring and mobile phone. What surprised me was that his watch was still working. When my father died and even when he was swallowed by the tsunami, it kept ticking. My dad’s watch is now mine. I don’t think I’ll ever lose it my whole life.
Yuta Hakoishi promised his father as he prayed at his funeral that the family would do their best to carry on. I believe that we must do everything within our power to help him keep that promise. That may be by making a donation to one of the appeals or by donating time as a volunteer. Please do all that you can. Let’s show Yuta and all the bereaved children of Tohoku that they do not have to bear their grief alone. Let’s help them to recover, so that they can return to the same captivations that they shared with other young people before the waves came.
Photo from Kyodo, via The Mainichi Daily News