The rebuilding effort in Tōhoku following the March 11 disaster is making progress, but the needs of children there have often been overlooked. Sadamatsu Eiichi, the COO and program director of Save the Children Japan, says that the affected communities need to draw on the energy and ideas of children, who are eager to help.
At Save the Children Japan, an internationally active nongovernmental organization that provides support to children, we conducted a questionnaire survey of 10,000 elementary, junior-high, and high-school students living in the disaster-stricken areas of Tōhoku. The answers to the survey revealed that around 90% of the students are eager to help their communities recover.
In response to the unprecedented disaster, local governments and residents have joined forces and are working tirelessly to rebuild their communities. But in many cases adults have ended up overlooking the specific needs of children. For example, children at evacuation centers have been told to behave themselves and keep quiet, which has prevented them from enjoying their usual noisy play with friends. For children in the disaster areas to get their lives back to normal, one crucial need is to secure enough space for them to play in a carefree way, even at evacuation centers.
This need to secure adequate space remains important even now that the focus has shifted from relief to the recovery effort. Many of the temporary housing units that are quickly being erected have been placed in parks or schools’ athletic fields. Unless space to play is provided at these housing areas, children will increasingly find themselves marginalized.
A Strong Desire to Get Involved
The reason that children in the disaster areas want to participate in the recovery effort, it seems to me, is that they are acutely aware that they will be overlooked unless they get involved. In one of the responses to our questionnaire, a seventh-grade girl expressed this feeling in the following way: “I’d like grown-ups to also listen to what we kids have to say, instead of just deciding everything by themselves.”
For the region as a whole, it also makes sense to have children play an active role in the recovery. People who are likely to fall into despair after losing family members and friends, or seeing the livelihoods they had built up over the years destroyed, will certainly be able to gain some solace from the sight of children—the future community leaders—lending a hand in the rebuilding work. In his questionnaire response, another seventh grader expressed a willingness to help: “I think adults have a lot of hard things to do now, so I’d like to see us kids using our energy to help out people in the community.”
When it comes to rebuilding communities in the disaster areas, the focus should not only be on returning municipalities to the way they used to be. Another aim must be to build communities where children can feel secure and happy. This is important because a child-friendly community is one that is amenable to everyone else, too.
Chief operating officer and program director of the NGO Save the Children Japan. First became involved in overseas charity work to assist drought sufferers in Africa. Later spent a total of 11 years in Nepal, where he was involved in developing its educational sector. Assumed his current position in February 2009.