Yesterday I met with the new Principal at Oshika Junior High School, along with some of the teachers, to see how things are going for the students and their families, and to see what kind of support they currently need. The principal explained the current situation …
There are now just fewer than 50 students at the school, and 30% of them are still living in temporary housing. Before the earthquake the school had double the number of students, and the intake is decreasing each year. Many families have moved to Ishinomaki, but really want to return to Oshika one day. The area’s beauty and peace was the reason many lived here in the first place, but the entire peninsula has turned into a massive construction site, especially with the six-metre high sea wall the is being constructed along the entire coastline. The construction work has made Oshika a noisy, “agitated” place, and it has taken (and still is taking) so long for people to move out of their temporary housing that Ishinomaki has become the place that many have reluctantly chosen to live for the time-being. There doesn’t seem to be much of an idea when the rebuilding of Oshika will be completed, but it is clear that it will be at least another ten years. Hopefully this beautiful peninsula will once again be a peaceful place to live.
In the meantime, the families that remain work hard. The parents have all returned to work now, and they have enough money for general living expenses. The new housing situation is complicated though … many young families still have mortgages to pay on properties they lost in the tsunami. Elderly residents now in new homes pay a small rental fee, as they didn’t feel able to take on a mortgage at their age. But the young families have taken mortgages on the new homes. They are optimistic but this leaves very little money for anything other than the essentials.
When asked what the school needs moving forwards, the Principal did not hesitate in stating that the school uniforms were, without a doubt, the best way to support the families. He stressed that the school itself was fine, but the parents were struggling, and would continue to struggle for many years. He told me that the uniforms not only helped the parents out financially, but the uniforms also support the students emotionally and psychologically. The Principal and other teachers really lit up when they started talking about what the uniforms mean to the students, and I must admit to feeling a little emotional as he explained this to me.
He said that the relevance of the school uniforms starts way before the students join junior high, as the excitement about going to “big school” starts in elementary school, and the uniforms represent so much. Not only is it the first time the students (who wear casual clothes in elementary) wear a uniform, but also that time when they first wear the uniform (in front of their younger schoolmates at a special ceremony in elementary school) is seen as an important rite of passage. They are taking their first steps into adulthood. They are growing up. Their lives are moving forward. The uniform sets the foundation for the future. I have attended these ceremonies and both students and parents are in floods of tears. It is a very emotional moment for everyone concerned when those students first walk into the room wearing their uniforms.
The Principal explained to me that the fact that these uniforms have been gifted to them adds an extra element to their school experience, which can affect the rest of their lives in a really positive way. He said that for the three years they attend school, every day they put on their uniforms they are reminded that other people care about them — and this was the point where my eyes started to sting. I had never really thought of the uniforms having that kind of impact on a daily basis. So I want to extend thanks, again, to everyone that has contributed to the school uniforms in past years: to Kspace International School for 2013, to Nick Johnston and John Whetsel for 2014, to Kspace International School again for 2015, and to Martin Urban, Mariko Yasuda, Lorna Nagamine, Sue O’Regan, and the Japanese community in Oxford for 2016. I met with the 2016 intake today and am posting a photograph of them at their entrance ceremony earlier this year, at the end of this post. Look at the students’ smiles! Thank you all so very much.
Not only do these uniforms provide practical and emotional support to parents and students, but they also inspire these youngsters to think about how we all care for each other. Already there have been stories circulating of young people who are now at university helping those in Kumamoto or in other countries struggling for a number of reasons. Young people who were specifically inspired because of the support they received after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Many of them are determined to pay it forward and to be active contributors to their own community, their own country, and to the world in general. Maybe we are starting to see the good that has come out of 2011.
The school really hopes that a kind soul will come forward to sponsor uniforms for the 2017 intake. There will be 12 students joining Oshika Junior High School. Their uniform “sets” include not only general day uniforms, but also bags, shoes, and sportswear. Each student is carefully measured and each uniform made so that it will last for the entire three years. The uniforms are all made locally, so the money stays in the local economy. And payment for the uniforms is not required until March 2017, so there is plenty of time for any interested sponsor to do any fundraising. Please let me know if you are even a little bit interested.
NOTE: since writing this blog post the Japanese community from Oxford have requested that the ¥260,000 they raised at the June event where I gave a speech, should go towards the uniforms for the 2017 intake AND the school have stated that the parents will be paying for the sportswear themselves, so the amount currently needed for uniforms in 2017 is now ¥304,000 (about £2100 or $2650).