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Japanese mayor driving recovery in face of tragedy

New school year delayed in Japan disaster zone
Kesennuma, Japan (AFP) April 11, 2011 - As the new school year starts in Japan, students across the country are returning to class. But along the tsunami-smashed northeast coast, many no longer have schools to go to. Education is enormously important to Japanese people, many of whom believe that reopening schools will allow those living in areas ravaged by Japan's worst disaster since World War II to return to some semblance of normality. But in many places, that is simply not possible. In worst-hit Miyagi prefecture, around 80 percent of schools were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed.

Others have been transformed into emergency shelters for the tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed when a huge wall of water barrelled into the northern coast of Japan, all but wiping out entire towns and villages. With many teachers dead or missing, even those that escaped relatively unscathed face challenges as Japan's famously intensive academic year gets under way. "Delaying the start of classes means there will be fewer opportunities for schools to teach. We'll have to think up of new ways to fill the gap, such as having classes on Saturday," Miyagi education official Masato Shindo told AFP. More than 13,000 people have now been confirmed dead in the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, with thousands more still unaccounted for.

In Miyagi, 462 students are dead or missing, while scores of teachers have also been lost, said Shindo. Kesennuma, a coastal city with a population of around 74,000 before the disaster, has delayed the start of the school year until April 20 to provide more time to prepare. Yoshiaki Waku, the deputy headmaster at Kesennumatsuya middle school in the city, said even that short delay would make it difficult to prepare pupils for their end-of-year exams. "I hope we can start classes again quickly, because otherwise we will face problems," he told AFP.

"We might have to have classes during the summer vacation, and I am also afraid that we will have to cancel some extra-curricular activities like sports." The school's position on top of a hill meant it escaped relatively unscathed from the huge 9.0-magnitude and massive tsunami that followed in its wake. All 55 students and 24 teachers survived, but some of the children lost relatives and homes, and Waku said many were still badly affected. "It would be good to have sports classes to revive their spirits, but I don't know whether we can," said Waku, adding that the school is considering providing counselling for the students.

In the worst-affected areas, schools are having to draft in teachers from elsewhere, and authorities are looking at whether pupils can be transferred to schools less badly hit by the disaster. Miyagi's Shindo said the disaster had dealt a "major blow" to education in the prefecture, and many parents were looking at sending their children away to stay with relatives, allowing them to attend school elsewhere. The cost of the damage to the education system, currently estimated at 77 billion yen ($910 million) for Miyagi, is certain to rise, he said. "Just because classes begin does not mean that schools have recovered," he said. "It will take several years just to return to conditions before the disaster."
by Staff Writers
Rikuzentakata, Japan (AFP) April 11, 2011
A day after Rikuzentakata mayor Futoshi Toba cremated his wife, he was back at his desk in the devastated city, leading the clean-up after Japan's worst natural disaster in living memory.

When the 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake hit exactly one month ago, Toba faced an agonising choice -- to leave his post and rush home to save his wife from the impending tsunami, or stay and do what he could for the city.

He opted to stay, displaying a commitment to civic duty that has mirrored the stoicism of residents of Rikuzentakata, one of the cities worst affected by the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11.

An estimated one in 10 of the city's 23,000 residents died as a result of the earthquake, most of them swept away by the massive force of the tsunami that slammed into the city less than an hour later.

Faced with overwhelming odds that meant his efforts to intervene would likely have been futile, Toba made a choice, but he remains tormented by the decision.

His two young children were at school when the tsunami hit, and survived, but his wife, who was in the family's seaside home, was killed.

"When the tsunami came, to be honest I was worried about my wife and children," the 46-year-old mayor told AFP at a makeshift emergency centre that overlooks what is left of his city.

"I thought about jumping into my car and searching for them, but as mayor I forced myself to decide which was more important -- doing your duty or saving your family."

Toba, who took over as mayor of Rikuzentakata just a month before the disaster but has worked for the city authority all his life, has won plaudits for his dedication in the face of such unimaginable personal tragedy.

But he has been forced to put his personal grief to one side as he grapples with the enormous impact of the disaster on the city, where dozens of bodies are still being found under the rubble every day.

An estimated 90 percent of the city was destroyed by the tsunami, and the sheer scale of the casualties has made it impossible for authorities even to start thinking about a proper clean-up.

"It's hard to talk about recovery when there are people who are still listed as missing," said Toba, who lost 68 city officials -- about a third of the municipal workforce -- to the disaster.

The tsunami swept through the lower floors of the city hall, destroying official files and documents, smashing windows and ripping power cables from walls.

Despite the scale of the devastation, Rikuzentakata was the first city to complete temporary rehousing after the quake and has moved 36 families from an emergency shelter set up in the local school to new homes.

But 2,000 new homes are needed, and there are fears people will leave the city rather than waiting for housing.

Japan's prime minister has said the towns along Japan's northeast coast should be rebuilt on higher ground to protect them from future tsunamis, and as Rikuzentakata's residents mourn their dead, many say they will never return.

"Everyone loves this place, it is their home town," said local survivor Ryo Yamazaki, 26, whose mother is among the missing.

"But if it takes 10 or 20 years to rebuild, realistically speaking, people won't wait around. Everyone is worried about that."

Toba also fears his city's plight will be forgotten as media interest in Japan's worst disaster since World War II fades. Already, locals say, the number of journalists coming to the shelter has fallen.

As he focuses on his city's plight, the father-of-two says he has not yet found the courage to tell his children that their mother has been confirmed dead, although he suspects they already fear the worst.

"They know I am busy so they have not brought her up, and I have not been able to bring myself to tell them," he said.

"If I tell them their mother is dead they will want to see the body, and I don't want that to be the image of her that they have in their head."

Even when his wife's body was found, weeks after the disaster, Toba's duties prevented him from rushing to see her.

"I only have regrets in my heart," he said, his voice filled with emotion.

"I ask myself what kind of a human being am I to have allowed that to happen. I have inner battles about it."

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Japan PM thanks world for support
Tokyo (AFP) April 11, 2011
Prime minister Naoto Kan on Monday placed signed adverts in some of the world's leading papers thanking people around the globe for their support in the month since a huge tsunami barrelled into Japan. The three-quarter page advert, entitled "Thank you for the Kizuna (bonds of friendship)" ran in international papers including the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Internationa ... read more

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