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Only 28% of Fukushima children returning to former schools

Only 28 percent of children are returning to their public elementary and junior high schools in five towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture following the lifting of evacuation orders imposed after the 2011 nuclear disaster, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned. The majority of schoolboys and girls are opting to stay out of their hometowns due to anxiety over radiation exposure and resettlement at evacuation sites.

The trend raises concerns that the number of young people in these towns and villages will dwindle and the survival of the municipalities is at stake.

The five municipalities are the towns of Hirono and Naraha and the villages of Iitate, Kawauchi and Katsurao. They set up temporary elementary and junior high schools at evacuation sites after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster triggered the multiple core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Hirono and Kawauchi reopened their public schools in 2012 and Naraha and Katsurao will follow suit in April 2017. Iitate plans to reopen its schools in April 2018, one year after the evacuation order is lifted.

Once these public schools have reopened, the temporary schools at evacuation sites are shut down, prompting children from the five affected municipalities to choose one of three options -- return to their hometowns, commute to their former schools by school bus or other means, or attend schools at evacuation sites.

According to the Mainichi study, 55 percent of 259 pupils and students from Hirono and Kawauchi have returned to their former elementary and junior high schools because the evacuation orders were relatively short. But only 139 students or 15 percent of students from Naraha, Katsurao and Iitate responded to a survey in 2015-2016 that they would return to their original schools. Only three students, or 4 percent, of 74 students from Katsurao said they would return to their hometown schools.

As for students from Naraha, 17 percent of students replied that they would attend their hometown schools but half of them hoped to commute to their hometown schools from outside the town. If young evacuees in Iwaki, a major evacuation destination, try to commute by train and bus, a one-way trip takes one hour. An official of the Naraha board of education expressed concerns that these students are really serious about commuting to their hometowns. A Kawauchi village official says that the returns of child-rearing generations are the village's lifeline. These municipalities operate school buses to encourage the evacuees to return to their hometowns as a stopgap measure rather than as a permanent solution.

Yusuke Yamashita, an associate professor of urban and rural sociology at Tokyo Metropolitan University, says, ''There are some parents who send their children to temporary schools before eventually returning to their hometowns. If these municipalities reopen their schools hastily, some families may abandon plans to return home (out of safety fears). It is important for the communities to offer as many options as possible by keeping temporary schools.''

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