KESENNUMA, Miyagi Prefecture--A shared experience of disaster has forged a lasting bond between teenagers in this quake-stricken city and children in a rural area of the Philippines.
A group of high school students here visited the Philippines in August to repay local children’s kindness extended to them in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan and left thousands dead in March 2011. The students said they returned to Japan feeling inspired by their Filipino counterparts.
“We went to the Philippines to cheer up children,” said one of the seven students, echoing the others in the group. “But we were the ones who received more encouragement.”
The students at the prefectural Motoyoshi Hibiki High School in this port city spent one week in the central Philippines.
The students wanted to help fellow victims in La Libertad in Negros Oriental Province by giving makeshift elementary schools in the wrecked town a coat of paint.
On Feb. 6, 2012, a powerful temblor struck the province and surrounding areas. More than 100 people were killed or remained unaccounted for. Some 4,000 homes were destroyed.
Among those affected were children who donated money for survivors of the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan.
Two months after that, collection boxes were set up at about 500 elementary and junior high schools in the province.
It was in response to a proposal made by Katsutoshi Furukawa, a Japanese man who has been involved in various aid programs for farming communities in the province.
Some children even skipped lunch to donate money.
The equivalent of 130,000 yen ($1,300) was raised and the money, together with donations by adults, was used to present about 3,500 tatami mats to survivors in Miyagi Prefecture.
Some students at Motoyoshi Hibiki High School lost their family members and homes when gigantic tsunami washed over Kesennuma after the magnitude-9.0 quake.
Some 1,300 city residents perished in the disaster. The high school was temporarily used as a morgue.
After the students at the high school learned about the temblor in the Philippines last year, they sent a letter encouraging their counterparts in La Libertad.
Later, after a first-hand report about the situation in the town from Furukawa, they decided to visit the Philippines to volunteer their time. Their priority was to paint the walls of makeshift elementary schools in the town to make the structures able to better withstand the elements.
After they arrived in the town, students were disheartened by the devastation. Hardly any repairs had been done to the buildings and bridges even 18 months after the quake.
Local residents felled palm trees in the neighborhood to use them as pillars in the construction of makeshift elementary schools. The roofs and ceiling panels of toppled buildings were recycled for the school buildings.
The Japanese students got to work painting at three elementary schools. Interior walls were painted white and exterior walls yellow.
After that, they painted flowers and fish on the exterior walls, drawing inspiration from local flora and fauna.
The schools, which initially looked like storage rooms for farm equipment, turned into nice-looking structures, according to Natsumi Takahashi, 18, one of the students who worked on the project.
One of the school principals expressed gratitude to the students for coming all that way to lend a hand in rebuilding efforts.
But the students said it was themselves who were rewarded more by their endeavor.
Many Filipino children had no choice but to live in humble shacks with roofs made of palm leaves after they lost their homes in the quake. They still have no access to electricity and tap water.
“I am now exceedingly grateful for the fact that we can get water by just turning on a faucet back home,” said Hiroki Kamata, a 16-year-old student who lives in temporary housing after his home was swept away by tsunami.
Takahashi, who also lives in temporary housing, said she is impressed by the way the children deal with the adversity.
“Despite the hardship, they always wear smile,” she said. “I should stop brooding over what happened.”
Kumi Abe, a 41-year-old teacher at the school who accompanied the group, said the students should draw on their project in the Philippines to lead rebuilding efforts in the Tohoku region.
“They are in the generation to play the central role in rebuilding from the Great East Japan Earthquake,” she said.
After they returned to Japan, the students remained in contact with the children in the province through Facebook.
They plan to give a session at their school cultural festival in October to share with audiences the situation of Filipino victims and their daily existence.
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