Junior high school on remote Japan island holds graduation ceremony for only student
MARUGAME, Kagawa -- A 15-year-old girl who was the only student at her elementary and junior high school on a remote island in this western Japan city thanked her teachers, family and locals as she graduated alone this spring.
Located 15 kilometers off the coast of Kagawa Prefecture in western Japan, the island of Oteshima is part of the city of Marugame in the same prefecture. It has an area of 0.6 square km and a coastline of about 3.8 km, and was home to 34 people as of March 1. Though fishing is the main industry, the island faces an aging population, and Akino Imanaka is the only resident under the age of 18.
Reflecting on her past nine years in school, Imanaka said, "It all happened so fast. I'm just so grateful as I was able to enjoy my school life thanks to the support of my teachers, my family and the people of the island."
Five teachers, some playing student roles
There are five teachers at Oteshima Junior High School, and some of them played student roles so Imanaka could exchange opinions with others during class. Once a week, she also visited a junior high school outside the island for "exchange study." Over 60 people including those from outside the island participated in a sports day last June, and Imanaka took part in many of the events, including gymnastics, a relay, a dance and a tug-of-war.
She explained, "It's usually just me, so there are times when I feel lonely. But I got to serve as the student body president and visited a lot of places as the school representative, so it was a good experience."
The 58-year-old principal praised Imanaka, saying, "She is kind and sincere. She worked hard in her studies and showed amazing growth over the past three years."
Oteshima Junior High School was established in 1914 as a branch of Teshima Elementary School. There were 91 students in the lower and middle schools at its peak in 1964, but the number gradually declined. The middle school closed in 2013 when Imanaka's older sister graduated, but reopened in 2020 when Imanaka entered. It will close again from the 2023 academic year.
'The island is like one big family'
Imanaka's father Nobuyoshi, 65, and mother Tami, 54, make their living mainly by fishing for octopi. Tami told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We were offered everything necessary for Akino to grow up."
Nine years ago, the couple felt bad about the elementary school having to reopen. At the time, Nobuyoshi was caring for his mother and could not choose to leave the island. When it was time for Imanaka to enter junior high school, she maintained that her school was in Oteshima and enrolled in the one on the island instead of somewhere else.
Tami says the charm of Oteshima is how "the island is like one big family." The locals always took care of her daughter, bringing her food when she had a fever, for instance. From April, Imanaka will attend a high school outside the island and live with her older sister and her brother-in-law in Kagawa Prefecture.
Basics of education seen at Oteshima Junior High School
According to the Basic School Survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for the 2022 academic year, 2,066 of Japan's 19,161 elementary schools and 1,033 out of 12,012 junior high schools each have fewer than 50 students.
"The basics of education of valuing each and every student can be seen at Oteshima Junior High School," said the principal, who spent three years with Imanaka. He added, "Even if a school is located in a remote area, it is important to make that unique trait a strength, and use it for education."
About 50 people including residents of the island attended the graduation ceremony held on March 14. Imanaka says she is interested in working in education or welfare in the future. Holding back tears, she delivered her graduation speech. "I am very happy to have been born on Oteshima," she said. "With the memories of this place in my heart, I look forward to starting on a new journey with a strong will and pride."
(Japanese original by Takehiko Onishi, Osaka Photo Department)
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