Hisako Kakuage

To the Children of Fukushima, and for Children with Special Needs

by Hisako Kakuage

Clinical  Developmental Psychologist/JBBY

I would like to report now on two projects for children with special needs currently being supported by JBBY.

One is what we call  Daijobu-dayo Packages, or “smile and carry on” packages. (“Daijobu da yo” is an expression meaning “it’s all right” that we use to reassure people. It tells children, for example, that they don’t have to worry, we are close by watching over them.)


The earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011 affected a broad area of northeastern Japan. For all those who treasure children including those of us who have been involved in JBBY, what happened came as a tremendous shock. As believers in the power of books, we knew we had to do something . . . In<Books  for Tomorrow>'s project, JBBY began this support earliest.

Immediately after the disaster, many small children were deeply frightened and they clung to their parents or caregivers and would follow them around wherever they went; many children did not have the energy to read books. They just wanted someone to be nearby. So for some time after the disaster, we selected books that can be read together with others, books that can be enjoyed with others. We are fortunate in Japan to have many fine books that support care in cases of psychological trauma. Books made out of cloth form a genre of which Japan can be quite proud. Cloth books are instrumental in both book therapy and play therapy, and we know that play serves an important role in helping children express and overcome the psychological pain they suffer. Having observed the power of cloth books over the past 10 years through exhibitions of barrier-free picture books, we at JBBY quickly recognized the role they could play in support for victims of the Tohoku disaster. These books are all made by hand, so each one takes much time and detailed handwork to create. But today some 500 such books have been delivered to children in the disaster zone. We have been able to accomplish this because of the vigorous network that JBBY has cultivated over many years.

Here is a picture drawn by a 4 or 5-year-old girl who had to leave her home in the wake of the nuclear power plant accident and live in evacuation housing for about 10 days. In a play corner, she passed the time silently drawing pictures, and at first this was the kind of picture she drew. Not far away from her, I was singing songs with some other children using this cloth book. The song began like this: “What does the number 1 look like?  A factory smokestack—mokumoku [the onomatopaiea for billowing smoke]. What does number 2 look like? . . . A duck in the pond—gaa gaa! [the sound of a duck quacking].” Then more children joined in the singing, and soon, she, too, timidly moved toward us to participate. After singing the song a couple of times with us, Towa-chan went back to her drawing and started adding colors to her drawings. Then she drew another picture—and just look! See how much it changed!

Among the children of the disaster are those who have disabilities, children who needed special care even before the disaster took place. When we think of the children of disaster zones, we should not forget these children  as  members of  IBBY

We are bringing to all sorts of books to the disaster area—handmade books with pages easy to turn and manipulate by children with motor disabilities; picture books meant to be touched, with Braille text, books that produce sounds, or printed in enlarged characters for those with vision impairments. Among autistic children, many love cars and trains, so we brought them books on such subjects, and toys as well. For the many children of Fukushima prefecture who were not allowed to play out of doors because of the danger of radiation, we brought books that can be enjoyed while getting some exercise as well as kamishibai that could be enjoyed with others clustered around. As this shows, the kinds of books we brought to the disaster zone were different from one place to another.

At the time of the disaster, I was told, children with disabilities were full of tension and bravely tried hard to suppress their emotions. For them, irregularity in daily life is a crisis, and those around them worked frantically to recover a settled daily routine as soon as possible. We have already confirmed that when a major disaster like this occurs, the problems of children with special needs increase and grow more serious. And of course the burden on family members who help and care for them is greater the longer life in evacuation centers or temporary housing continues. Amid such difficulties, grown-ups gain great encouragement when they can see smiles on children’s faces.

The second JBBY-supported project for the children of Fukushima is based at the Nomaoi Bunko.

The city of Minamisoma is one of the areas hit with the triple suffering inflicted by the powerful earthquake, the devastation left by the tidal waves, and the radioactivity spewed out by the damaged nuclear power plant. The city of Minamisoma is divided into three zones by level of radiation exposure: Evacuation Directive Lift Prepared Zone (less than 20 millisieverts a year); Habitation Restricted Zone (more than 20 and up to 50 millisieverts a year); and the Uninhabitable Zone (over 50 millisieverts a year).

We have been watching over the lives of people in this area and, on the 11th of every month, selecting and bringing books to the meeting places of Minamisoma people,  who continue to live there. we name these small libraries  Nomaoi-bunko

“Nomaoi” is the name of a traditional festival passed down in this area.

Today more than half of the children who normally live in the city of Minamisoma have moved elsewhere. The Yotsuba Day Care Center in Minamisoma reopened in September last year, but only half of the children originally there returned. At the beginning of the new school year (in April), instead of the expected 30 new students at a certain elementary school in the city, there were only 8. The evacuation resulting from the nuclear power plant accident has split up many families, with the father alone returning to a job in Minamisoma while the mother and children take up residence in some other town. Still, half of the students do continue to live in this place.


Not only in Minamisoma but elsewhere, children in Fukushima are not allowed to play freely out of doors since the nuclear power plant accident. Many projects have been undertaken to build large indoor athletics facilities and to invite Fukushima’s children to other prefectures during extended holidays. However, grown-ups are concerned about the psychological and physical impact on children who cannot go out of doors freely. It is reported that 15 percent of expecting mothers in Fukushima suffer from depression, but many other people, too, are just barely managing to keep their sanity under the conditions they live under. The fact that, of the three prefectures hit by the disaster, the number of disaster-related deaths (number of deaths since the day of the earthquake) is the largest in Fukushima, powerful testimony to what people have continued to suffer there since March 11, 2011.


It is to people like this, who live in the temporary housing settlement in Minamisoma, that the Nomaoi Bunko brings books. Month after month, we observe what Minamisoma has become, feel the changes in the seasons, and strive to choose books that will respond to the people’s needs.

In April and May 2011 soon after the disaster, the evacuation centers in this area were hard to reach. Even delivery of food and other relief supplies was difficult. At first we entrusted our books to a pediatrician who was making the rounds of the centers. In those early months, we sent books that would carry the message “Daijobu dayo” (you are all right) along with books that could be enjoyed with others and with someone close by, and also cloth books. Recently we are receiving messages saying that people now want books that will energize them, enjoyable books that will make them smile and laugh out loud.

            Many elderly people live in the temporary housing built for victims of the disaster. Among Nomaoi Bunko books, they often choose books of Japanese folktales. Folktales are known for telling of the forces of other worlds. As the elderly face problems they cannot resolve no matter how they struggle, perhaps the notion of otherworldly powers gives them a sense of hope.

As I carry on, watching over Fukushima and continuing this form of support, there is one other problem that deeply troubles me: the splits and divisions resulting from the disaster. In the controversies over the harm resulting from radioactivity and the decontamination activities, local people are divided in their opinions, tearing communities apart. In Minamisoma alone, there has been no clearly stated official answer to the question “it is safe to live here?” And so people have been left to find their own way and make their own decisions. Often they find themselves reproached for thinking it is safe to stay there, but if they move away they may also be reproached for “abandoning” the town. Every day, people everywhere are anguishing over the borders that people are drawing in their hearts. Children, the caregivers who look after them, and people of their communities face difficulties unlike those human beings have ever experienced before. We can only believe in the strength and resilience of human beings and in books that have the power to help in overcoming divisions and differences.

The exposure to radiation suffered by the people of Minamisoma, which could have been avoided if not for the delay in the government’s response to the accident at the nuclear power plant, is the source of the feeling among many people that “we have been abandoned by the government.” In our country, it is quite common for the victims of a disaster, no matter how shocking, to be forgotten as soon as the mass media cease to report about the issue. If you ask the people of Fukushima what kind of support they want the most, the first thing they say is “not to be forgotten.” And so, slight as it may be, we at JBBY have sent the message, by bringing books every month on the 11th of the month, that we have not forgotten.

One of our collaborators in this support of the Nomaoi Bunko is a librarian of Fukushima . She in one of JBBY member. Five days after the disaster on March 11, 2011, I received an email from her, which went as follows:

Today, 50 kilometers away from the power plant where the nuclear reactor accident occurred, it feels as if we are in a “battleground.” Our days are filled with anxiety and fear, and the aftershocks continue to shake the earth, so we cannot sleep. Even I myself am not sure what I should be doing.

Then, one year later, she wrote as follows:

A year ago, at the time of the disaster, I remember thinking how it reminded me of the Brothers Grimm story of “Trusty John” (or “Faithful Johannes”). As you may know, it tells of the many difficulties faced by the protagonist, a faithful servant of the King, who protects and loyally serves the young prince after the King dies. In the latter half of the story, Trusty John finds his own life and that of the prince in the balance and faces a critical decision. Thinking back, I now realize that the fact that I was able to recall that story amid the terror of our own disaster helped me maintain my dignity as a human being. When people face great distress, they often feel overwhelmed by hate and fear, but it seemed to me that the story of Trusty John was telling us that we needed to be ready to accept the difficulties and suffering that come to us. This experience has made me realize that our lives are quite naturally nourished by the power of stories like this.

And then, my librarian friend conceived a new life within herself, and wrote to me as follows:

. . . three years ago, I had finally gotten married, but when the nuclear power plant accident happened, I wondered whether perhaps I would never be able to safely bear a child. I anguished over whether anyone who lives in Fukushima should have children at all. My husband and I discussed the matter over and over and I shed countless tears. But this year, when I learned that I was pregnant, it seemed as if I had been chosen to nurture this new spark of life, so I decided to accept it and raise this child. I am not without qualms, of course, because in Fukushima, where contamination from the radioactivity released by the plant lingers, humankind has no clear answers as to what the physical or psychological impact will be for the children who are brought up here. Still, we have no choice but to go on living, to keep going . . .

Putting good books in the hands of children is the best thing that we can do; it is one of the few things that adults can do for children. And so it is my hope that the support we receive [for the Nomaoi Bunko], modest though it may be, can keep this work going as long as possible. And I myself will do my utmost to protect and rear this life that only I can care for and protect.

Watching over Minamisoma has been a very painful experience. But our pain is nothing compared to the anguish of those who continue to live there and those who currently live in distant places while yearning for the place that was their home.


To all of my friends at IBBY, I would like to say that JBBY faces a challenge that humankind has never before experienced. We look forward to your right  understanding, support and love・・・!