We Are Not Godzilla! Japan’s High School Students Come Together in Fukushima

On August 4, Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Kondō Seiichi attended the opening ceremony of the 35th All-Japan High School Cultural Festival in Fukushima Prefecture, and came away deeply impressed by the determination of the students and their expressions of hope for the future.

On August 4, Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Kondō Seiichi attended the opening ceremony of the 35th All-Japan High School Cultural Festival in Fukushima Prefecture, and came away deeply impressed by the determination of the students and their expressions of hope for the future.

I thought this opening day would never come.
How can I enjoy myself, I thought, when so many others are suffering?
Eventually, I understood that there is more than one way to honor the dead. You don’t have to hold your hands in silent prayer; singing works too.

The opening ceremony for the Fukushima National High School Cultural Festival was held on August 4 in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. The lines above come from a play performed by the host students of Fukushima during the opening ceremony. It was one of the highlights of the occasion.

The National High School Cultural Festival takes place in a different prefecture every year, jointly sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the All Japan Senior High School Cultural Federation. Following qualifying heats held all over the country, the festival brings together the winning teams for events in some 20 categories—from local folk performances and orchestral music to drama to photography. It is truly a celebration of the arts. This year’s festival, the 35th, had been scheduled to take place in Fukushima long before the tragic events of March 11. High school students throughout the prefecture had been looking forward to the events for years. Students had come up with a design for a mascot called Pêche-kun, based on the prefecture’s delicious peaches, and steady progress was being made on finding venues and arranging accommodation for the thousands of students expected from around the country.

Then, with less than five months to go to opening day, the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11 wrecked everything. Students looked on in horror as their homes, families, and friends were swept away. Surely, everyone felt, the festival would never go ahead after this. For the students who had worked so hard on preparations for the festival, it was a cruel blow indeed. As the extent of the tsunami damage became clear, and as details began to emerge of the situation at the nuclear power station, the mood of pessimism only deepened. One regret after another came to them. The lines of the drama go on:

If I had known that I would lose people so suddenly, I would have done more to cherish them while they were still here.
I have made up my mind: From now on, I will cherish every moment, every person.

Despite everything, the students refused to give up hope. In late April, with reconstruction work underway, the cherry blossoms in bloom, and the nuclear crisis moving at long last toward resolution, Fukushima Governor Satō Yūhei decided that the festival should go ahead as planned. Students not just from Fukushima but from all over Japan were delighted to know that all the time they had spent preparing and practicing had not been in vain. Even so, with work progressing slowly to restore essential services, daily life had yet to return to normal. And many people were still missing. The students of Fukushima were unsure of themselves: Was going ahead with the festival really the right thing to do? And even more unexpected difficulties lay in wait. People started to avoid Fukushima. Overreacting to the situation, people—not just overseas but in other parts of Japan too—started to shun vegetables and beef from Fukushima, even though there was no evidence that products from the entire prefecture had been uniformly affected by radiation. This unexpected rejection left deep emotional scars on many students, as expressed in the following lines:

I feel sorry for people who jump to conclusions, led astray by prejudice and misleading information.
Even after what happened that day, the thousand-year-old cherry tree still blossoms, gentle and proud.
How can I learn to live like you?

Venues for events in eight of the categories had to be changed. Several of the original locations were inside the 30km evacuation zone around the nuclear power station, and others suffered damage in the quake. Finding alternative venues was not easy, as many of the municipal halls and gymnasiums in the prefecture are still being used as evacuation centers. Eventually, organizers decided to relocate two events outside Fukushima and hold the remaining 15 at a variety of locations within the prefecture. Naturally, careful steps were taken to monitor radioactivity levels at all the venues. Meanwhile, the students were learning important lessons:

For the first time I realize how precious the little moments of happiness are that I always took for granted.
From now on, the people of Japan must learn to think of others.

Besides those who suffered from the tsunami itself, many students were living in a state of suspension, stuck in evacuation centers or staying with relatives after being forced from their homes by the nuclear problem. Even those that hadn’t suffered directly often needed time away from rehearsals to care for friends and relatives. In spite of all their difficulties, the students continued to throw themselves into their preparations. After long months of hard work, the opening ceremony went off without a hitch on August 4.

Some 11,000 high school students, including 8,346 from outside the prefecture, gathered in Fukushima from all over the country. Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Akishino and their daughter Her Imperial Highness Princess Kako were also in attendance, spending a night in Aizuwakamatsu to take in choral performances and visit several venues, including a school for the handicapped. Naturally, they were received with great enthusiasm wherever they went. This gave students hope:

This is not the end; we will start again from scratch
Since that day, my ambitions have changed. Now I want to do something for Fukushima, the land that I love.

One of the things that made the drama so moving was that the students were addressing the audience in their own words. The script had not been written for the students by their teachers. The organizers had called for submissions from high school students who had been personally affected by the disaster, encouraging them to express their feelings in their own words. The script had been put together from these submissions.

Everyone in attendance was thrilled by how well the ceremony went. When the formalities were over, the governor and I made no effort to hide our delight. There was a tear in every eye. No one was in any doubt that the decision to go ahead with the festival had been the right one. Backstage, we passed on our congratulations to the local high school students who had been looking after us. “You’ve all done really well,” we told them. “Tell everyone how impressed we are.” One girl, who had been all smiles until then, suddenly began to cry. No doubt she was remembering all the hard work and sacrifices she and her friends had put in to get here, as well as the trials the people of Fukushima prefecture had gone through and the damage the disaster has done to Fukushima’s reputation nationwide and around the world. But it was not long before her smile returned. The earthquake and its aftermath have made people in this corner of the world remarkably strong.

The following lines from the drama moved everyone who heard them, and even provoked a sense of guilt in some:

Recently, I learned for the first time that the movie monster Godzilla was created by radiation.
But we are not Godzilla. We are just normal people, trying to live normal lives in our beloved Fukushima.
We have lost nearly everything. But hope remains.

(Written on August 5, 2011)

In This Series
Cultural Perspectives on Disaster and Recovery
We Are Not Godzilla! Japan’s High School Students Come Together in Fukushima (August 5)
Young People of the World, Come to Japan! (July 4)
Time for the Japanese to Tap Their Latent Strength (May 10)

Kondō SeiichiKondō Seiichi

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1946. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1972. Served as director general of the Public Diplomacy Department, as ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 2006 to 2008, and as ambassador to Denmark from 2008. Commissioner for Cultural Affairs since July 2010.