Last week I met with the incoming students of 2017 at Oshika Junior High School. They are the latest year of students to receive school uniforms, thanks this time to Liane Wakabayashi and the Japanese community in Oxford, UK. In a few months the 2018 incoming students will be walking into the school hall in their new uniforms, thanks to Robin Maynard.
The principal asked me to join the 2017 students in their English lesson, when they had to listen very carefully to my self-introduction, and take notes to see if they had understood me correctly, and then ask questions. It took me back to more than twenty years ago when I was an English teacher in Tokyo.
They were a very lively bunch of students, with a couple of students asking one question after another, growing more and more confident with each question. Not all of them were quite as confident though, with one girl in particular hardly saying a word until she quietly pulled me aside at the end of the class, asked if I was the person who brought the library to Oshika, and then came alive as she told me how much she loved it and uses it all the time. The teachers told me afterwards that they were so surprised to see Kanon-chan talking to me of her own accord. It made me so happy to meet someone for whom the library means so much.
Then yesterday I met the parents of these students, and saw more than a few familiar faces in the group — people who have stopped to say hello at one point or another during my time here. It was nice to know that some of them had received help in the form of the school uniforms. One lady pulled me aside afterwards and said that all three of her children had received school uniforms since we started supporting them, and she was incredibly grateful for this support during what has been such a difficult time. I was later told that there were two other parents in the room who had three children each that had received uniforms. It’s lovely to have supported people with big families, when they must have been so worried about where the money would come from in order to pay for the uniforms.
I privately asked the principal, as I always do, to update me on how everybody is doing. He was happy to report that none of the students live in temporary housing anymore, and all the families are finally in their own permanent homes. He said that the students are all doing well, and the employment situation is improving. When I asked what kind of support they needed now, he said that the only thing that they really need is ongoing support for the school uniforms. He said that this was a huge help to them, and was very much appreciated.
As is often the case here, I sometimes have to poke around a bit to find out more about the reality of people’s living situations. The biggest change since I was last here is that all the students are now in permanent housing. But this has actually put even more financial pressure on the parents of these kids. Here’s why.
Before the earthquake the vast majority of people owned their own homes on Oshika. It was rare for anyone to be in rented accommodation. About a third of those home-owners had mortgages. The others lived in very old family homes, without any mortgage. If you lost your home in the tsunami (or it was deemed unsafe to live in even if it survived) and you had house insurance, you might have received up to 25% of the value of the house. And if you had a mortgage, you still had to pay it, even if you could no longer live in your home. So for almost seven years, some people have been paying off mortgages for properties that they lost, living in temporary housing (provided for free — residents just paid utilities), and struggling with employment.
There have been two types of new homes that have been built — if you were single or a couple then the local government offered you a small property, which you rent. It wasn’t like families were told that they weren’t allowed to rent one of those properties, but the rent would have been so expensive that it just didn’t make sense. So anyone with children hasn’t really had much choice except to build their own home, with a mortgage. Bear in mind that some of these families are still paying off mortgages from the properties that they lost. So it’s really not unusual on Oshika to find families with two rather large mortgages, one of which is for a property they will never live in or sell. The property just doesn’t exist.
So when you look at the implications of everyone moving into new homes, it actually makes things much more difficult financially for these parents. And makes you realize just how much of a help these school uniforms are, perhaps even more so now.
I share all of this in the hope that some kind soul might be moved to sponsor the school uniforms for the 2019 incoming students. At the moment it looks like there will be eight students joining Oshika Junior High next year, and their uniforms will cost about ¥370,000 (about $3,400 or £2,400). The money isn’t needed until March 2019, so there is plenty of time to do some fundraising if you think this is something that you’d like to support.
Thank you so much!