Frogs in Fukushima
October 10, 2011
Dear Family and Friends,
According to Wikipedia The Congregation of Notre Dame is a Roman Catholic order that was founded in Montreal, Canada in 1653 by Marguerite Bourgeoys. However, other sources claim that that organization doing good works began in France and later branched out into Canada, where it offered education to children, especially native girls. The facts about the early history of the order are probably not as important as the work the nuns continue to do even today. The sisters vow to a life that is “little, simple, and poor”. And their main focus is education. This order can now be found in nine countries, one of which is Japan. In fact, there is a Congregation of Notre Dame in Fukushima.
During World War II, in 1932 to be exact, five sisters opened a convent school in Fukushima City. Now that institution has a kindergarten, an elementary, junior and senior high school, and a junior college. It also has expanded to offer classes to adults in the community. There is also a residency for the nuns.
The school was very popular and active for many years. But since the nuclear disaster everything has changed. All of Fukushima Prefecture is suffering, more deeply than anywhere else in the earthquake-tsunami affected areas. Fukushima’s reputation, now worldwide, is in total disarray. And that is having enormous consequences in that visually magnificent rural prefecture. Not only is there a “no go zone” around the nuclear plant, but business in general is terrible. No one wants to buy anything produced by the farmers or caught by the fishermen there. Thousands of people have left, some going as far as Hawaii or other distant places in Japan. And that means many schools and businesses have been greatly reduced or closed. The prefecture itself is out of money; and the clean up work is far from over. In fact, it will be years before even uncontaminated regions get back on their feet. And the radioactive areas will need far longer, even generations. To put it simply, the atmosphere in Fukushima is dark, heavy, and rather depressing.
School children near the nuclear plant now have to wear a gauge around their necks. This device keeps track of radiation levels. Periodically the government collects these plastic little necklaces and records the data in them. No one is quite sure what is done after that, but hopefully the information will be used in health-inducing, health-protective ways.
All of these things are precisely the reason why Debbie Buckler, founder of The 500 Frogs Project, wanted to give homemade creatures to children in devastated areas, especially in Fukushima Prefecture. She asked me for help in finding places to donate her frogs. Fortunately I had a friend, Satsuki, who worked in Fukushima’s Sakura no Seibo: The Congregation of Notre Dame. Thanks to her we were able to meet the kind teachers and heart-melting first and second grade students and to bring a moment of joy into their worry-filled lives.
Satsuki brought five of her junior college students to assist us. We started with the second grade. As we entered the room, all the very polite, uniformed children stood up and bowed to us. The looks on their faces were precious beyond belief. There was a sense of great anticipation and excitement, blended with extreme restraint not to rush up and see up close what we were arranging on the tables. One little boy in the back was so excited, he jumped up and began dancing around singing, “This is sooooo exciting! This is sooooo exciting!”
As our junior college helpers lay the colorful, imaginative gifts on the table, Satsuki and I explained to the children about the love and care that was in each frog. Surprise and joy lit up every child’s exhausted face as we talked. And when we gave the go-ahead, they did indeed rush up to the table, but in an impressively orderly manner. They did not push, grab, or snatch. Rather, they gazed at all the frogs, admiring in wonder the little critters with carefully painted folded hands and friendly, welcoming expressions.
Then one by one the children selected their frogs.
And if two kids longed for the same one, they did “scissors-paper-stone” to determine who would get it. The disappointed child would go to another spot to select a “second best”, which would surely soon become a favorite and good friend.
We did the same with the first graders. They, too, were stunningly well mannered and equally as delighted. They, too, chimed out “Arigatou gozaimasu!” Thank you very much, as they bowed in gratitude to us.
We took lots of photographs, of course, and admired each child’s frog. We told them they should name their critter and keep it as a friend. Second grade kids immediately put up their hands and said, “Mine is named Keiko.” “And mine is PocoPoco.” I’ll call mine Minnie.” “And mine will be Megumi.”
The first graders were quieter, more thoughtful. They said they would think about it and decide that night at home.
Of course, those moments with the absolutely adorable children of Fukushima were deeply touching and thought provoking. And all of us hope that the vibrant frogs from so far away will be a reminder that they, the children, are not forgotten and that people everywhere really do care.