Ofunato Day 9

The laughter is explosive. We are beginning our show for the first graders at Unozumai shogaku (elementary school) in Kamaichi.  Guy is playing his music stand opening where the stand keeps falling apart just as he thinks he has it back together. I am hiding behind the curtain up on the stage of yet another super large gymnasium with shining wooden floors.  Guy is out in front of some thirty kids who fill up a small fraction of the space.  Their laughter on the other hand is bouncing off the walls.  It is far above levels we have experienced in other similar situations, something is off but I am not sure what.  The show is great fun; the kids’ energy levels remain high.  They embrace the workshop experience with similar enthusiasm.  At the end I break our normal pattern to include a Tai chi-esque cool down moment to bring their feet, bodies and spirits back to the ground.

Guy and I do our traditional goodbye where we stand (or kneel depending on the kids’ age) and  do high five slaps with the children as they exit the building. They are still full of glee and many eyes are shining bright.  During the show I noticed a woman watching from the back corner of the gym, and later saw Keiko spending a lot of time by her side. After the kids depart we go join Keiko, and we are introduced to her, she is the school counselor, the first that we have met.  Before our journey up here, when I met with Aya of Plan Japan, she had told me about the school counselors who are dealing with the children’s mental health issues.  Aya had also told me that the counselors are spread thin, and that the plan to assign one to each school isn’t possible everywhere, that they are spread around assigned to multiple schools.

As we have been wishing to know more about how the schools are addressing mental health and PTSD issues, it is great to finally make contact with a counselor.  She tells us that she cried during the show, that it was the first time that she had seen the children laughing, and that it was her that convinced the school administrators to bring us in for a show.  There is great emotion, and plenty of teary eyes in the grand space of the gymnasium during our initial conversation, which we carry on, this time not in the principal’s office, but in the teachers’ office (It seems that the Japanese way is for each teacher to have a desk, computer set up in a collective office.)

The counselor explains how these children had a very deep tsunami experience at their former school, which is now destroyed.  She tells us how the junior high kids went to save the elementary school kids, how the kids all held on to each other, to the teachers and the older kids as they escaped. Their school was close to the water, whereas Unozumai, where these students are temporarily going to is 8 kilometers inland from the fishing harbor of Kamaichi.  The reason for their explosive laughter has unfolded.  We discuss the nature of the work we offer in the workshop periods, the concept of giving the children a chance to express themselves and thus release some of their stress from the trauma. Her answer clearly illustrates some of the challenges we face: ” expressiveness is not in the nature of our culture.”  She continues: ” I see the value of what you offer and it is very important, but we don’t have the tools that you offer.” It brings up lots of questions looking for ways to address these challenges.

The afternoon show/workshop is in a small upstairs music room of a nearby pre-school.  The room is just as hot as it was during the morning show-it’s a hot and humid day.  By the time we are done, Guy and I are both feeling a bit exhausted. It’s been a long stretch of show days in a rather difficult environment and we are both starting to feel it.  We feel particularly blessed today as we meet yet another counselor after the show.  It turns out the she is not a counselor, but a coordinator working with an NGO bringing counselors into elementary and pre schools. (no connection with the counselor we met this morning.) We have another great and productive meeting with her, and she will be coming to see our show tomorrow afternoon, which will be our last before heading over the mountains inland to catch the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

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