Five years after the nuclear disaster, 20 Japanese schoolchildren are in Singapore for fun therapy, at a unique art camp to help them deal with the trauma of 3/11 and their disrupted lives.
SINGAPORE: It’s the school holidays in Japan and for 11-year-old Ayumi, it’s the best time to simply enjoy being a kid.
“I wake up around 8am, eat breakfast, then I play quiz games. Then it’s time for lunch, play some more games, have dinner, then sleep,” she says, animatedly describing in Japanese a normal day.
Her friend, Nagomi, spends her days catching insects in the countryside; she's also learning a bit of calligraphy and karate. “There are not a lot of girls, and there’s a boy in my class and I always lose to him!” she shrugs.
It seems like a perfectly ordinary Japanese childhood, growing up in a perfectly ordinary Japanese small town — until you ask if they like where they live.
A mere 22km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is the town of Hirono, where many children are still trying to adjust to a normal life. (Photo: Noritoshi Hirakawa)
“Right now, there are a lot of workers helping to clean up the mess, and there are many strangers (living there). I want them to leave,” says Nagomi with a tinge of sadness.
That “mess” is the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, ground zero of the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl, following the devastating earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 11, 2011.
It’s also a mere 22 km from where Nagomi and Ayumi live, a small town called Hirono.
While Hirono was more fortunate than most other towns and cities affected by what’s now called 3/11 (only two people in town were said to have died as an immediate result of the earthquake and tsunami), the threat of radiation contamination led to the evacuation of its residents that year.
Five years later, some of Hirono’s residents, like the girls’ families, have returned to rebuild their lives and begin the healing process. But it hasn’t been easy - especially for the children.
It's a long journey of healing for some of the children of Hirono, who are in Singapore for an art camp that incorporates art therapy. (Photo: Noritoshi Hirakawa)
And so, to help along that healing process, Nagomi, Ayumi and 18 of their fellow students from Hirono Elementary School have been flown 5,500km to Singapore, to take part in a unique kind of art camp.
MIRACLE IN SINGAPORE
It’s a Tuesday morning, and the children are shuffling into a room on the fourth floor of Block E at LASALLE College of the Arts. They are here for an art therapy session led by some of the school’s art therapists and volunteers.
It’s the third day of the Miracle Kutchie Experience, and these 90-minute morning sessions form the backbone of their two-week experience.
Kutchie means “full” or “a lot” in a dialect used in the Fukushima Prefecture - and as art camp experiences go, this one packs in plenty for the kids, who are aged 9 to 12. In the afternoons, their schedule includes a mix of art classes (such as pottery and dance), museum trips, and the occasional tourist stop, such as a trip to Sentosa. It all culminates in a farewell party and exhibition on Aug 7 at *SCAPE.
One of the art workshops at the Miracle Kutchie Experience is a pottery session at Goodman Arts Centre. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
New York-based contemporary artist Noritoshi Hirakawa, director of the non-profit foundation Today Is The Day, had the idea of flying Hirono's children to Singapore for some art therapy after realising that very little was being done to help them cope with the trauma of 3/11.
“There was no organisation dealing with trauma care or the reduction of radiation intake,” he explains.
While a Japanese organisation called Children Are Our Future does what it can for Hirono’s children, Mr Hirakawa notes that art therapy isn’t an officially recognised discipline in Japan - whereas it is in Singapore.
There are other benefits to holding the event here, too: Singapore is safe, comfortable and has a big Japanese community to tap for volunteers, including families willing to play homestay hosts.
But more importantly, it's an opportunity for the children to get away from Hirono.
For one, being away from their parents and among their peers may help the children open up a bit more, organisers believe. And while the effects of radiation are long-term in nature, two weeks away from a contaminated environment can only be good for them.
DEALING WITH TRAUMA
The art therapy sessions are all held behind closed doors. But LASALLE’s programme leader for MA Art Therapy, Mr Ronald Lay, gives an idea of what takes place.
On that particular Tuesday morning, for instance, the children are being encouraged to create a “memory book”, a scrapbook of sorts which they are filing with thoughts and drawings.
The day before, they were instructed to create paper “name pieces” to represent themselves. As the sessions go on, the therapists will slowly take things up a notch: The children will create characters from clay, which they will then use to tell stories or “scenarios”.
And it is during these potentially delicate moments that certain experiences might surface.
A drypoint artwork done by one of the children at Singapore Tyler Print Institute features a family of four. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
“If a scenario develops where (the children bring up) people dying, or there’s a mention of radiation, then there might be some links to the traumas of Fukushima,” says Mr Lay. “But we’re not saying, ‘draw your trauma’, because at this age, kids would never do that. We’re trying to have the child take the lead, not us.”
New York-based art therapist Toshiko Kobayashi, who has been involved in the art camp since last year, admits that traumatic images have surfaced before.
“(There were) images associated with the earthquake, radiation and tsunami. Or with losing somebody, leaving behind a house or objects they had, the difficult life they had,” says Ms Kobayashi.
Indeed, beneath their cheery dispositions, hints of the difficulties the children have had come up even in casual conversations outside the sessions - whether it’s an out-of-nowhere comment about a death of a relative, or simply the day-to-day uncertainties.
“I moved about 10 times because of the earthquake,” Ayumi reveals. “We go to a hotel, then go and find another one, then another one.”
Nagomi admits she wasn’t keen on returning to Hirono in the first place. “To be honest, I didn’t really want to go back. Because we were moving around a lot, there wasn’t any opportunity for me to meet my friends and play with them.”
The town of Hirono isn’t what it used to be, according to Mr Hirakawa and Ms Kobayashi.
Both regularly visit the town to study the situation not just among the children, but with their parents, too. “It psychologically affects the lives of everybody,” says Ms Kobayashi.
In 2014, a study on the mental health of the town’s residents by Brigham Young University in the United States revealed that more than half who took part showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, while two-thirds exhibited symptoms of depression.
Outsiders working on the clean-up at the nearby nuclear plant now outnumber the original residents in Hirono. (Photo: Noritoshi Hirakawa)
The situation is compounded by the influx of what Nagomi calls “strangers”, outsiders who have come in to help in the clean-up efforts at the nearby nuclear power plant.
With residents reluctant to come back, these workers are, in a manner of speaking, taking over the town. Of the current population of about 5,000, more than 3,000 aren’t technically from Hirono.
“The town has become totally unbalanced with outsiders (numbering) more than the people who originally live there,” says Ms Kobayashi.
And for the children, the difference in life before and after 3/11 is evident every time they step into their classrooms and see themselves surrounded by empty chairs - with their other classmates still living elsewhere.
In fact, the 20 students taking part in the art camp comprise almost a third of the entire population of Hirono Elementary School.
"THE CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE"
For Mr Hirakawa, the situation in Hirono is part of a bigger picture about nuclear issues and its effect on society.
The Miracle Kutchie Experience art therapy camp is just one of the few initiatives connected to 3/11 that he has kickstarted under Today Is The Day.
He has roped in luminaries in the arts and entertainment world to chip in with the foundation’s efforts. Its impressive members list includes the likes of actor Benicio del Toro, performance artist icon Marina Abramovic, dance legend William Forsythe and Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. From Singapore, there is the likes of Japanese gallerist Ikkan Sanada and Singaporean visual artist and Cultural Medallion recipient Milenko Pravacki.
Contemporary Japanese artist Noritoshi Hirakawa started the Today Is The Day foundation, which has initiated a few activities in response to 3/11. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
Aside from talks and fundraising activies, there was also an exhibition shown last year in Japan, which very recently travelled to Thailand.
Among the works shown were those directly related to 3/11 and the Fukushima tragedy: Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara had taken photographs of an abandoned elementary school in the town of Namie, now a ghost town; while the late French sculptor Jean-Luc Vilmouth had travelled to the town in Yamamoto to do a video about the lives of local fishermen after the tragedy.
Mr Hirakawa’s efforts didn’t just start with 3/11 - he has long been commenting, through his art, on global nuclear power issues, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. In 2008, three years before the Fukushima disaster, he exhibited photographs taken at another controversial - and equally earthquake-prone - nuclear power plant in Hamaoka in the country’s south.
A few months after 3/11, he also held an exhibition on the global nuclear industry and nuclear disasters.
Mr Hirakawa's exhibitions on the impact of the nuclear industry have included this photo of a pregnant woman in her house located next to another controversial nuclear plant in Hamaoka, Japan. (Photo: Noritoshi Hirakawa)
You could say that everything built up to the idea of an art camp for Hirono’s children; that it was the logical step to take.
“It’s society’s responsibility to deal with the children who are victims, and we have the obligation to take care of them,” he says.
IT’S SERIOUS FUN
The adults may take the Miracle Kutchie Experience very seriously, but for the children, it’s two weeks of serious fun all around Singapore.
After Tuesday’s closed-door art therapy session (and, for some of the boys, a quick post-lunch improvised baseball game with a tennis ball and an empty water bottle on the fourth floor of LASALLE’s Block E), it’s off to the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) for some printmaking.
According to art therapist Mr Lay, children naturally gravitate towards art-making. And indeed, a trip to the Goodman Arts Center’s ceramic studio on their first day had seen the children eagerly tackle their given task - creating clay flower pots and fridge magnets filled with images of baseball, flowers and even the Marina Bay Sands building.
Art camp kids hard at work at the National Gallery Singapore. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
The next day, it was off to the National Gallery Singapore, where they went wild exploring the Keppel Centre for Art Education’s colourful playground, before drawing and making collages later on.
At STPI, the children are tackling drypoint. Curious eyes are on printer Tamae Iwasaki as she demonstrates how to scratch drawings on a piece of acrylic to begin the magic. Soon, everyone is hard at work, applying layers of ink on their masterpieces before these go through the press. And voila - on paper appear a bird, a football field, a family of four spending time outdoors.
While it is tempting to see something deeper in these works - a bird to symbolise flight; a family portrait to indicate a yearning for togetherness; a weird-looking ghost-like figure with a Salvador Dali-moustache and a red tongue sticking out as some subliminal indication of horror - the art therapists caution against reading too much into these immediately.
For all we know, a bird is a bird. Or, they are just missing their family because they are in Singapore.
STPI printer Tamae Iwasaki showing the kids how drypoint printing is done. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
The adults behind the art camp all admit that the healing process is a long one, and a two-week camp is certainly not enough.
Says Mr Lay, “We’re really setting the building blocks or comfort levels necessary to perhaps talk about the traumas (substantially) later on in the future.”
Ms Kobayashi adds: “Psychological trauma needs a lot of time to process. And sometimes, being traumatised stays with you your entire life. Individually, everybody has different levels of resilience, but if you have a supportive community, you will be stronger than those who don’t have that support. So giving them heartfelt support is already good.”
Mr Hirakawa stresses how important it is to keep such a programme going, despite being low-key compared to more visible humanitarian efforts such as building houses or donating food and clothing.
“Trauma, radiation - what we’re dealing with are quite invisible things, so it’s difficult for people to know the results. But it’s actually very important,” he says.
AN INSPIRING EXPERIENCE
Their efforts are slowly but surely paying off, even if it’s only apparent in small ways for now.
While the first art camp in Singapore had just eight children, more families in Hirono are coming on board as they see the merits of the programme. Last year, the number of participants doubled, and now there are 20.
The initial art camp was also more or less an ad hoc event, but in the past two years, more sponsors and collaborators have come on board, while the art therapy sessions have gotten more structured.
For the children of Hirono, the two-week trip to Singapore is a chance to have fun away from a contaminated, possibly stressful, environment. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
It has also given Japanese expatriates in Singapore a chance to give back to society.
Ms Junko Amasaki, for instance, a permanent resident married to a Singaporean, is hosting two of the boys for part of the camp. She was living in Singapore when 3/11 happened, and this is the first time she is getting involved not only in the art camp but also in something so intimately related to Fukushima.
“I can’t imagine the experience the children have had. It will be a learning experience for me as well,” she says, adding that they plan to take the boys to the Night Safari and Universal Studios in their free time.
For Amy Julie Natori, one of the camp’s volunteers, it has been an eye-opening experience, too. The 18-year-old high school student from Yokohama jumped at the chance to follow the children to Singapore and play big sister.
She is only six years older than the oldest participants, and would have been roughly around their present age when disaster struck in 2011.
“My worries back then only lasted for a couple of weeks, not knowing if my grandparents were still alive, because they were from that region. But for these kids, it has been longer. They were evacuated, they had to change schools at one point and be far from their friends, and finally they’re starting to settle back in,” she says.
“But these kids are strong, and they find ways to stay happy and make other people laugh. It’s inspiring.”
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An artwork created by one of the participants of the Miracle Kutchie Experience art camp. (Photo: Mayo Martin)