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Life in a high school displacement camp in Kesennuma, Japan

Japan, April 4, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shoes and hand sanitizer outside of a classroom in Kessenuma Junior High School, Japan. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps

I spent two years working in junior high schools in Japan as an English teacher, so stepping into the foyer of the Kesennuma Junior High School had a familiar feeling. What was inside, however, was anything but normal.

Junior high school classes had already restarted in one part of the building, but the section I entered still houses hundreds of people who had lost their homes, vehicles, belongings, and in some cases loved ones in the devastating tsunami that hit Japan on March 11th.

The first hint of disruption came in the fact that I did not have to remove my shoes when I stepped into the school. With volunteers, evacuees, and family members tramping in and out with boxes of donations, the usual protocol of changing into plastic school slippers had been replaced by a couple of towels for wiping off shoes and boots.

However, in the classrooms where groups of families have been living for three weeks, the inhabitants had made an effort to restore as much normalcy as they could. In front of every classroom door was a more or less neat row of shoes, along with hand-written or printed signs requesting the people remove their shoes before going inside. Each entrance also had bottles of hand sanitizer. There were signs with the names of the people in the room and the people who had moved out to stay with family or friends or in other areas of the country. There was a sign indicating which was the designated classroom for people with pets. And on the door of the bathroom, there was a sign explaining that it was only for the use of the elderly and the ill or disabled. Healthy young people were urged to go downstairs and outside to use the temporary toilets that had been set up there (I followed those instructions, and found a temporary toilet nicer than many permanent bathrooms I've used!)

Going up the stairwell, my colleague and I passed an interaction between two elderly women. "Did you hear that?" my colleague asked me. "It was a relative offering money, and the evacuee is refusing it out of politeness. She will offer it again until she accepts."

Peering through the glass windows of the classrooms as we walked by, I saw the rooms sectioned with cardboard, blankets and rugs piled on the floor, elderly men and women slowly eating rice from plastic bowls or huddling by the kerosene stove where a large kettle was heating water for tea. From the windows in the rooms on the third floor, I could just catch a glimpse of the sea.