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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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More than Just a Study Room

Rikako Takada

Mar. 9, 2017

A study room outside Tokyo is supporting students from northeast Japan who were forced to evacuate because of the March 11 disaster 6 years ago.

It was set up for young evacuees in Yokohama and other surrounding cities. Forty-three students from elementary level to high school are studying there, and many are originally from Fukushima Prefecture. The students get a little help from college students who volunteer their time as tutors.

"They help us study, and it's fun," says one girl there.

Takehiro Suzuki established the study room, which is free to the students and is funded by foundations. Suzuki was a city official in Kanagawa just after the earthquake. He noticed that children at an evacuation center were huddled together to sleep and had no room for studying, so he set up his first study room there.

Suzuki doesn't want the students to give up on their future because of the disaster, so he's kept the study room going throughout the 6 years since the quake.

"I think these children have gone through unimaginable experiences. I want them to use that to move forward, standing on their own 2 feet," he says.

Yuya Ishihara has been coming there to study for the past 3 years. He’s 17 years old, and is studying to take college entrance exams next year.

He was just about to graduate from elementary school when he had to leave his home in the city of Iwaki in Fukushima.

"I missed playing with the friends I left behind. That was part of my life. So when I lost that, I was sad, and felt lonely. For the first year or two I just wanted to go back to Fukushima," Ishihara says.

He now lives in Kanagawa with his mother and younger sister. He lives in a single-parent household, and it hasn’t been easy for the family to make ends meet. Last year, his mother fell ill and had to leave her job. They're just getting by on his mother’s unemployment insurance. Ishihara is saving money from his part-time job to pay the fees for his college entrance exams.

Life as an evacuee has been difficult for Ishihara, both financially and emotionally. He says he's had a hard time fitting in with his classmates, even after starting junior high.

"Things that were normal or acceptable where I used to live were not, here. That’s how it felt to me. Even some of the words I used were different, and sometimes people didn’t understand me and laughed at me," Ishihara says. "Besides school work, I had to work hard to make new friends. I had a hard time and worried about things a lot."

Then he found the study room. The tutors write comments and advice in the students' notebooks after each lesson and Ishihara treasures his notebook, which is filled with words of encouragement.

"Sometimes I take out the notebook and read it when I'm studying at home. It encourages me and gives me strength," Ishihara says.

The tutors cheer them on by sharing their own experiences.

“The world outside school is really huge. Even if you don’t find friends or people who think like you at school, you will find them elsewhere in the future,” says tutor Yuriko Koide.

Ishihara feels the study room has given him a direction.

"Even when I feel down at school, the study room gives me courage and makes me feel happy," he says. "The tutors' stories give me a broader view of the world. They've expanded my interests and ideas about the future. It's been a really good experience, that's helping me figure out what kind of person I should be."

It's Ishihara's last year at the study room, but he's thinking of switching roles. After passing his college entrance exams, he thinks he'll come back and help tutor the younger evacuees.