Kiyo Hiratsuka is on the longest spring vacation of his life. The 12-year-old student was supposed to start middle school on April 8.
Instead, he's spending his time reading comics, drawing cartoons, and playing board games in a classroom in his former elementary school, which he now shares with 312 other Ishinomaki residents left homeless by the colossal tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan last month. School gets a delayed start on April 21, but Kiyo isn't sure if he's excited or anxious.
"I have no idea what it'll be like," he says, slouched on a blanket next to his mother.
For Kiyo and thousands of other kids living in a 250-mile-long swath of northeastern Japan affected by last month's disaster, school has taken on a whole new meaning.
The tsunami slammed the coast on March 11, just as the school day was wrapping up, so many students took refuge inside the sturdy buildings. Some stayed for days, others for weeks.
Teachers became caretakers and classrooms became homes.
Schools and teachers have always played an important social role in Japan, but now they are gearing up as essential actors in helping their students – and their communities – move forward after the disaster.
"In Japan, teachers are expected to counsel students about emotional or behavioral issues and actively interact with families," says Miyoko Ozawa, director of the Sakura Education Research Center in Chiba. Now, she says, that role is crucial to recovery, and it's no easy job.
As of April 11, at least 2,669 people had been confirmed dead and 15,166 homeless in Ishinomaki, a coastal fishing and manufacturing city of 162,822. Nationwide, the Ministry of Education has estimated that out of the more than 13,300 killed, 207 elementary and middle-school students died, but city officials say they don't yet know what the figure is for Ishinomaki.
Many in town do agree that if teachers hadn't stepped in to lead school evacuations and organize shelters after the disaster, more children would have died.
"The teachers really saved the kids," says Yoshiei Hiratsuka, Kiyo's father, who rode out the tsunami at home while his son stayed at school.
Hideki Toyohara is the head teacher at nearby Okaido Elementary, one of 31 elementary and junior high schools converted into shelters in the town. He was at school when the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. He and other teachers led students to the gym. Then, when the tsunami warning came, the staff moved them and other neighbors up to the second and third floors of the school. They stayed there – without water, electricity, or food – for about three days.
"For a while, no one could get to us. It was freezing cold, so the teachers tore down curtains to use as blankets, handed out gym clothes for people to wear, and distributed some snacks we happened to have around," says Mr. Toyohara.
As the official emergency response got under way, city officials and residents gradually took over shelter operation, and many children have moved in with relatives or friends. But some, like Kiyo, have stayed on in the once-familiar buildings. "It's totally different now," he says, looking around the classroom at blankets, teakettles – and elderly neighbors. Out front are portable toilets and Self Defense Force humvees; out back, there's a cemetery slathered in mud and dotted with wrecked cars.
Other kids in the shelter hang out in the library playing with toys, but Kiyo doesn't join them. "I'm not an elementary kid anymore," he says with a tinge of pride, similar to what one might sense from any teenager in any country.
But soon, he and his parents will need to find a new temporary home. With 12 out of 71 elementary and middle schools too damaged to use, the city is trying to clear out those used as shelters so classes can start up.
That start will also mean a slate of new challenges for teachers, many of whom are homeless themselves and still trying to locate former students.
"I'm very worried about the teachers. I think the exhaustion has built up and they need counseling," says Ayako Ota, a supervisor at the Ishinomaki board of education who lost her own home in the disaster. So far, however, efforts are focused on helping the kids.
Last week, the board of education held three teacher-training sessions with a child psychologist to introduce the basics of dealing with trauma and recovery. A group of organizations including Save the Children, World Vision, and UNICEF is also preparing knapsacks filled with school supplies for disaster victims.
"Everyone really looks forward to the first day of school. We want to make sure there's no gap in what kids have on that day," says Noriko Sato, a communications officer at Save the Children.
But knapsacks or no knapsacks, teachers will face a different kind of gap in their classrooms this spring.
"Some children survived, but they watched their friends get swept away by the tsunami. Those kids will move into schools in unaffected areas," says Ms. Ota, and they may need special care.
Kiyo lost his home and his grandmother in the tsunami, and he still seems to be thinking more about that day than about his new life as a middle-school student. "The tsunami was so much stronger than I imagined. It was so scary," he says, fingering a hand-held video game. The game was the last thing his grandmother gave him, and even though tsunami water wrecked the screen, he keeps it with him all the time.
Fumiaki Sato, the principal of Okaido Elementary School, is already thinking about how he can help students like Kiyo. One idea: incorporate more music into school events.
"A school's basic role is to lift kids' spirits and energize them," he says. "We want to get them smiling again. When that happens, the older people in the neighborhood will start to cheer up again, too."