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Boy at nuclear disaster-affected school recovers from slump to graduate

Akihito Otaka, left, is seen with his mother Miho, center, and teachers as he graduates from Futaba Kita Elementary School in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 23, 2016. (Mainichi)

IWAKI, Fukushima -- A boy whose school was formerly located in the town of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, which is under evacuation due to high radiation from the nuclear power plant disaster, recovered from being unable to attend school to graduate here on March 23.

    Akihito Otaka, 12, made his return to school in June last year. "Thank you, teachers, for shining a light for me when I was in a dark tunnel," Otaka said at his graduation ceremony.

    At the time of the disaster, Otaka was a first-grader at Futaba Kita Elementary School. His family, evacuating from the nuclear disaster, moved from place to place in prefectures such as Saitama and Niigata. At his new schools, however, he was exposed to mean remarks, and he gradually started refusing to go to school. He told his mother that if he could go to school at a Futaba school, he would want to go, since he might have friends there. As a family they moved to Iwaki, where in 2014 Futaba Kita Elementary School and Futaba Minami Elementary School restarted operations together in temporary facilities.

    Before the nuclear disaster the two schools had a combined 343 students, but now they have only 10. The Futaba Municipal Government has utilized small class sizes to reach out to children not attending school.

    The first day of his attendance at school in Iwaki, Otaka says he was so worried, he couldn't get out of his mother's car. He started out by just eating school lunch and then going home. His teacher Kayoko Hayashi, 50, gave Otaka puzzles and other activities, and he started staying at school longer. Then in December last year, he started riding on the school bus with other students. While his fellow sixth grade students have all evacuated elsewhere and as the only member of his grade, Otaka became involved enough to participate in activities for the school sports day. His mother Miho, 42, says, "He became more cheerful and caring for others." He also started talking at home about what had happened at school.

    In reflection on the five years since the disaster, Otaka said in his speech at the graduation, "The earthquake disaster brought not just sadness, but also a lot of joy." He will next attend Futaba Junior High School, which is operating in the same building as his elementary school.

    "I want to be involved in recovery work for my hometown," Otaka said proudly as he spoke of his dreams. His mother, smiling, told him, "You've really grown up."

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