With Japan's worst disaster since World War II still hanging like a dark cloud over the nation, Kiyoshi Sasaki figured there was no better time to teach his students about the dangers of contamination from radiation.
That explains the sight of students at Meiken Junior High School in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, measuring radiation levels with dosimeters in the schoolyard as part of extracurricular activities on Sept. 5.
Students at other schools in the prefecture are also trying to grapple with the realities of radiation following the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, along the coast.
Sasaki, 55, who serves as an adviser at his school's club of natural science, recalled that three months after the nuclear crisis flared, he asked first-year students in a science class if they wanted to learn about radiation.
A barrage of hands went up and he found himself peppered with questions.
"What is radiation?" asked one student. "When can we bring the radiation under control?" asked another.
Parts of Koriyama city lie within a 50-kilometer radius of the stricken plant.
Sasaki decided that the students should start monitoring levels of radiation in the school grounds and analyze the data themselves.
"It shows high levels, here," one student shouted out during the Sept. 5 exercise. "Why is that?" asked a classmate.
Contaminated surface soil on the school premises was removed and buried in the school grounds.
Sasaki came up with the idea of students measuring radiation levels in the area and determining why it has higher amounts than elsewhere. He wanted the students to compare and analyze radiation figures across the prefecture.
In Koriyama, work got under way in April at municipal elementary and junior high schools, as well as day-care centers for children, to remove contaminated surface soil.
Eighty-six municipal elementary and junior high schools in the city check radiation levels at 11 sites, including four corners of the schoolyard, at each school daily.
At Meiken Junior High School, 60 percent of the students chose to write reports on radiation as a summer vacation assignment.
When Sasaki read a report by Risa Yamakawa, 13, he was touched.
The girl wrote: "I want to be a scientist when I grow up. I will reduce radiation levels to help people live happily."
At the school's science classroom is a copy of a card written by Hideki Yukawa, the Nobel laureate in physics in 1949, when Japan was struggling to rebuild from defeat in World War II.
"By living another day, people should make progress one more step," the card reads.
Hiroshima, the first city to be leveled by atomic bombing 66 years ago, gave birth to "peace education," a notion which has been propagated in classrooms across the country.
Sasaki is determined that Fukushima, home to one of the world's worst nuclear accident, should spearhead "radiation education."
Among others schools in the prefecture trying to face the fallout of the disaster squarely is Hirano Junior High School in Fukushima, the prefectural capital.
Teacher Michiko Fujita, 58, recalled that few students at her school seemed overly concerned although they were at one time forced to limit their gymnastic activities outdoors due to potential exposure to radiation exceeding safety standards.
"I was afraid that students may have tried to avoid giving away their true feelings," Fujita said. "They sensed the atmosphere and may have avoided depressing topics."
In mid-July, she asked her third-year students to tell their classmates how they felt about the nuclear calamity. The students began pouring out their feelings."
"I am wary of going out," one student confessed.
"I was annoyed at the way people discriminated against cars with Fukushima license numbers," said another.
Fujita instructed her students to reflect on their lives since the nuclear crisis by writing an essay on the topic as their assignment for the summer break.
The Japanese Society of Environmental Education, headed by Osamu Abe, a professor of intercultural communication at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, took an unprecedented step this year by proposing a model for an ethics class on the theme of the nuclear accident.
The proposal was made at the request of Iitate, a village northwest of the stricken nuclear power plant known for high levels of radiation.
One of the teachers who joined forces in crafting the model coursework was Eiko Takagi, 58. She teaches science at Kogane Junior High School in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture. Takagi said that she was troubled by a newspaper article about an elementary school pupil who was forced to move again after children in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, refused to mingle with the child, saying they were frightened they would be contaminated with radiation.
In July, she asked her class of second-year students if they had heard about the story. She urged them to consider the feelings of the Fukushima student.
As Japan grapples to overcome the triple disasters of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, the massive tsunami and the nuclear disaster, education, more than anything else, will play a crucial role in helping young Japanese face the harsh realities of what has transpired.
Hiromasa Konno, 17, who studies agriculture at Fukushima Meisei Senior High School in Fukushima, measures radiation in a sunflower field. His classmates donated money to buy sunflower seeds to grow.
His uncle is a full-time farmer in Iitate. Since he was very young, Konno has helped him with planting potatoes. But his uncle, like everybody else in the village, was forced to evacuate after the nuclear accident.
One day, Konno came across a newspaper article that said sunflowers absorb radioactive materials, thereby helping in decontamination efforts.
"I want to be involved in decontamination operations even if it takes 10 to 20 years," he said.
Manabu Sato, a professor of school education at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Education, said education can play a leading role in steering Japan to rebuild from the disasters, much as it did after Japan's defeat in World War II.
"The ongoing crisis made us realize that we live in an archipelago crowded with 54 nuclear reactors and that a nuclear accident can happen anywhere," he said. "We should educate students in a way that equips them with a basic knowledge of the health risk from radiation and how to protect themselves, while offering similar training programs to teachers as well."
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