Night school brings joy of learning to Fukushima

Night school brings joy of learning to Fukushima
Hiroshi Watanabe practices the alphabet with a volunteer teacher in late August in Fukushima.

FUKUSHIMA - A night school run by volunteer teachers has been boosting the spirits of people in Fukushima Prefecture.

Adults with an appetite for knowledge have been engaged in twice-a-week studies at the volunteer-run middle school in the prefecture, which is home to a large number of evacuees from the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

One of the school's students said: "Learning peps me up. It helps us overcome the disaster." The man, in his 70s, re-learned the English alphabet.

One evening in late August, volunteer teachers taught English, history and other subjects in a conference room at a community center in central Fukushima. The class was conducted in the style of a small cram school. Students ranged in age from people in their 20s, who came after work, to people in their 70s, and it was a bit difficult to tell who was a teacher and who was a student. Both teachers and students examined the textbooks with enthusiasm.

"The letters g, p and q look similar, but they're actually different," a teacher told Hiroshi Watanabe, a 74-year-old city resident who practiced writing the alphabet that day with the help of a teacher who was young enough to be his daughter. His notebook was filled with letters he had written in pencil.

After graduating from middle school, Watanabe took such jobs as painting automobiles and collecting used paper. "I've eked out a living," he said. Since the nuclear crisis began at the plant, he has lived with health concerns about the disaster's effects. "Learning new things relieves my stress. It's also fun to get together with classmates," Watanabe said.

The community group that founded the night school is headed by Ichiyo Otani, 50. There were 35 public middle schools offering night classes in other prefectures, but none in Fukushima, according to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Partly inspired by her late younger brother, who was truant when he was a middle school student, Otani founded the community group in August 2010. "We need a place for people who missed an opportunity for a proper education," Otani said. She had tried to persuade the city and other authorities to establish a night middle school, but her efforts were in vain. Consequently, she contacted acquaintances with teaching experience and asked them to participate as volunteer teachers at a private tutoring school she established in Jan. 2011.

Because the classroom facilities were badly damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, the school was forced to temporarily shut down just after it had opened. Some students from areas near the damaged nuclear plant were unable to commute to the school after they were evacuated. However, the school resumed classes in May 2011 in response to popular demand.

The classes are generally held twice a week from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The annual operating cost of the tuition-free school is financed through donations.

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