Hundreds of children were bereaved by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. It is high time we devoted attention to what we can do to help relieve their suffering.
About 240 children were orphaned, and 1,500 lost one parent. Most of the orphans are now living with their relatives or foster parents.
Nearly 70,000 youngsters have had to apply for student aid. There are various government-funded financial aid plans for these young quake survivors, in addition to 50 or so scholarship programs, both public and private.
Given the sheer magnitude of the disaster, it warms our hearts that many children have found loving homes and that generous aid programs have been created for them.
We are reminded anew of the strength of community ties in the Tohoku region, as well as the kindness and warmth of Japanese society in general.
But real challenges lie ahead where dealing with children's emotional scars is concerned.
After the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, a spike in psychosomatic problems among youngsters developed two to four years later, rather than during the first year.
There is no closure for children whose parents are still missing. And children are known to suppress their own grief and sense of loss if their one surviving parent cannot get over the loss of his or her spouse. It is not unusual for such children to develop psychosomatic symptoms many years later.
According to reports from the Tohoku region, cases of truancy and juvenile delinquency have risen since the start of this year.
Volunteer aid workers have come across many emotionally scarred youngsters. One volunteer recalled a child sitting alone in a room, her back ramrod-straight. Asked what she was doing, the child replied, "I'm doing penance because I couldn't save my mother."
More adults are needed to watch over and listen to these young quake survivors.
School counselors fit the bill, but not many are available in Tohoku's three hardest-hit prefectures.
Iwate Prefecture, for instance, has only about 70 counselors for its 620 elementary, junior high and senior high schools.
In fiscal 2011, the central government dispatched 2,000 counselors from around the nation to the three prefectures as a stopgap measure.
But it takes time for a counselor to develop a solid relationship with a child. Obviously, it is better for any child to keep seeing the same counselor rather than be shunted from one to the next.
At first, government-dispatched counselors stayed no longer than three months. This was later extended to six months, but local residents want the government to consider extending it further to four to five years, or even recruit those who would stay permanently.
We certainly agree that the longer they stay the better, and hope they will share their know-how with local schoolteachers and others.
Only full-time community members can keep supporting troubled children over extended periods, say, five years or a decade. There is a pressing need to develop local talent.
Ashinaga, an organization that is committed to helping children of disaster victims, is currently training local volunteers on ways to play with young quake survivors and become their confidants.
Anyone around the nation can help those children indirectly by supporting Ashinaga and similar organizations.
The youngest survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake will become legal adults on March 11, 2031. Until then, we must all keep watching over them.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 13
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