Summer Camp for Fukushima Kids

“Let’s Have Fun in Aizu!”
Smiles on the Faces of the Children of Fukushima

Pipala Magazine September-October, 2011

by Rev. Eka Shimada

Rev. Eka Shimada is a young Jodo Pure Land denomination female priest. She has been helping Zenseikyo’s relief work since March 11th, but has been involved for a few years with the Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem and the Hitosaji Association which feeds to homeless in Tokyo. She is also a member of the JNEB and wider INEB network.

The Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Welfare in association with the Soto Zen denomination’s Fukushima Branch Youth Division held a two-day summer school camp called “Let’s Have Fun in Aizu” from August 2-3, 2011. The participants were primary school children from Umizoi village on the coastal area of Fukushima, which was devastated by both the tsunami and nuclear reactor incident. The plan was to invite children, who since the triple disaster in March have been restricted to playing indoors only, to run around outside and play freely. There were a total of 64 children from the ages to two to primary school grade six.

When we first all gathered, there were some kids who were trying to hide their nervousness, but once we got on the bus we introduced ourselves and played games and eventually the kids began to smile and the staff could become at ease.

Feeling Alive amidst Great Nature

Our itinerary of two days and one night took us to the heart of Aizu Wakamatsu city in western Fukushima where there are no worries about radiation contamination. On the first day, we visited the lush and green Sayuri Park where we had a program of outdoor recreation, such as swimming and climbing on a ropes course, as well as a barbeque. Blessed with good weather of blue skies and high floating cloud amidst great nature, the kids could run all over the place and work up a good sweat.

At night, we stayed at the “Fukushima Aizu Nature Home”. We expected that the kids would be a bit disoriented with the many rules of staying in a public lodging place. But after listening to the explanations of the home’s staff, the kids set up their beds, followed the guidelines, and helped each other to pass the time quite naturally.

During the opening ceremony, the Buddhist flag was raised and a flower offering was made. Then while singing together in one resounding voice the Buddhist hymn “Witness to Veneration” (sasagu-miakashi), we made a vow to achieve our goals for the two days we had gathered to be together. Finally, with the bringing together of recollections from each hometown, white flowers were offered.

At the dinner that followed afterwards, everyone chanted the Buddhist meal offering known as the Verse of Five Contemplations (gokan-no-ge). For the children to understand better, each of the verses was spoken in a modern translation form. The children put their hands together saying, “The food we put in our mouths comes from the lives of others for which we give thanks.” After dinner, everyone gathered around a big campfire for folk dancing and entertainment. At the end, some of the priests in a surprise move began to dance around singing the theme song of the children’s favorite television show called Marumo-no-okite (Marumos Rules). The kids eventually all joined in a huge climax to the evening. As the coals of the fire started to turn white and die down, the children began to notice the starry night sky and their faces lit up with smiles. It was a very lively and warm time together.

When it was time to go to bed, their excitement continued on in the unfamiliar setting of sleeping in bunk beds, and for a while they could not sleep. However, with the help of the fatigue of the days events, the children calmed down and fell into the deep breathing of sleep.

A Day of Touching History and Tradition

Our second day began with gymnastics and stretching. At breakfast, the children started getting used to reading the Verse of Five Contemplations aloud. It was remarkable to see their adaptability. We then broke up into teams and walked around the vicinity of the Nature Home, examining the different trees and practicing orienteering. Suddenly, we were climbing up and down on mountains paths and rambling along in the nature.

After departing the Nature Home, there were many kids who enjoyed the visit to the Tsurugajo Castle in Aizu Wakamatsu City. The children could see and get a feel for the real weight of the muskets and the Japanese swords used by the old samurai in the exhibition area. They also learned about the famous White Tigers, a clan of local samurai who led the revolution against the Tokugawa Regime in the mid 1800s. We then climbed up the castle tower where we got a panoramic view in four directions of the beautiful green area of Aizu Wakamatsu. Feeling the breeze against our sweaty bodies and taking this all in was refreshing and wonderful. Finally, we provided them some time at the gift shop in the castle to purchase some travelling gifts with their pocket money. They seemed to be quite serious in choosing something memorable for themselves and their families within their budget.

The next place we visited was the Aizu Nisshinkan School for young samurai that was established in the final years of the Tokugawa Era as part of a system for educating young men. The White Tigers were taught and raised here under the very strict rules called ju-no-okite, summed up in the phrase, “These are the things that must be done” (naranu-koto-wa naranu-mono desu). Although it wasn’t clear whether the students understood them exactly, many exclaimed, “Wow! That’s really strict!” Many could not hide their surprise to learn about the earnest attitude that young people their same age had in this region over 100 years ago.

After filling themselves on local food served in a traditional round wooden lunch box, the children split into groups by choice either doing archery or painting. For those who did painting, they were asked to consider how their local regions might recover from the present situation and to decorate one of the self-righting pop-up dolls as a good luck charm. The kids began to use different colors to draw the faces and kimonos on the dolls and seriously thought about different patterns while carefully moving their pens along the surface.

After this activity, everyone got back together to practice Zen meditation. The openhearted Zen priests who were acting as staff went off to change and when they reappeared in the meditation hall in their monastic robes, the students immediately took on a more solemn air. After receiving guidance in how to cross their legs and place their hands, they concentrated and meditated amidst a peaceful atmosphere. Once the children could get used to sitting in this posture, they began to light up with a sense of accomplishment in their endeavor.

At the closing ceremony, the staff passed on words to encouragement to the children who were living in a situation where they could not freely play outdoors in their home areas. After giving out certificates of completion, the entire schedule came to an end.

The Present Situation of the Children

Despite the enjoyable time we had at the camp, for the children, there still must have been some anxiety in being away from their parents and their home for the first time since the March disasters. The earthquake and the tsunami came up in discussions with them, and we could see that the anxiety in their minds still lingered a bit. We also heard about their complicated and lonely feelings towards having to transfer in and out of schools. But it was great to see their resolution to make new friends after leaving their old schools.

Getting a little distance from these difficult feelings, I feel that taking this opportunity for both the children and us guardians to have fun outdoors without anxiety was very important. Being together for only two days was short, but by connecting with these well-behaved children, I could feel the blessing of how these children may find joy rather than misery in their future.

Translated by Jonathan Watts

Rev. Shunko "Princo" Masuda, Shingon priest and performer entertains refugee kids

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