FUKUSHIMA--A 34-year-old woman watched her son running around an indoor play center in Fukushima city.
“It’s the first time in a long while I have seen him breaking a sweat as he plays,” she said.
The boy, a second-year elementary school student, has, like many of his contemporaries, spent much of his time cooped up indoors since the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
His mother won’t let him play outside because of the threat of radiation, so he has been watching television and DVDs after coming home from school instead of playing in the parks or vacant lots that were his old stomping ground.
"I think that’s why he looks glum when he is eating his meals. I am worried," the woman said.
Her parents take care of her son on weekday afternoons, because she regularly has to work overtime and her husband is living away from home in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, because of his job.
The mothers of classmates in the neighborhood have agreed to let their children go to each other’s houses to play, but she said she was concerned about overburdening the non-working mothers who tended to end up dealing with the children.
"It is difficult for me to keep on allowing my son to do that given that the current situation will continue into next year and later," she said.
Many of her son’s friends have been given game consoles since the disaster, and they now often play games when they meet. Her son is now asking for his own console.
But perhaps most concerning has been the impact of the disaster on her son’s attitude to the world around him. He now often asks: "Can I go outside?" or "Can I open the windows?"
She does not discuss the nuclear accident with the boy, but believes the chatter of the adults around him is clearly having an impact.
"He is cowering mentally and physically. If such a lifestyle continues, I worry about his future," she said. "I feel a sense of guilt (about keeping him inside). I want to do something to resolve this situation.”
A 38-year-old man at a noisy game center in a Fukushima city shopping complex said it offered his 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son a chance to blow off some steam.
"It is big. They can run and talk loudly. They can play as much as they want," he said.
But he said such opportunities were much more limited than before the earthquake. The playground at his daughter’s kindergarten has been decontaminated, but he worries that his son gets tired after walking for only five minutes and has become wary of strangers because of a lack of opportunities to meet non-relatives.
"He is growing but he has few opportunities to run around. I am concerned about the possible effects of such a life. He is building up stress because he can’t go outside," the man said.
In many of Fukushima Prefecture’s schools, decontamination work has brought atmospheric radiation below the government's maximum of one microsievert per hour and made physical education classes and club activities possible. Half of elementary schools and two-thirds of junior high schools currently have no restrictions on outdoor activities, according to the Fukushima prefectural board of education, and the time when restrictions apply in most of the remaining schools is less than three hours.
Nevertheless, parental concerns mean that many children are spending most of their non-school hours inside. A firm that manages six indoor play facilities in Fukushima Prefecture said revenue increased by about 30 percent in November from the same month last year, with facilities specifically aimed at preschoolers proving particularly popular.
Tomotaka Mori, professor of physical education at Fukushima University, said: "For children, the time before they get to senior high school is important in deciding their physical capabilities and any six-month period at that age is important. The excitement and competition offered by non-physical games only gives a fraction of what physical exercise gives you. I want schools and other organizations to focus on providing exercise, even if it is in indoor facilities.”
(This article was written by Mari Nakamura and Hiroko Saito.)
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