Many children of families who have fled Fukushima Prefecture after the 2011 nuclear disaster have become targets of bullying at school.

The education ministry said on April 11 that a total of 129 cases of school bullying in which children from Fukushima were victims have been confirmed over the past fiscal year.

Only four have been formally recognized as cases linked directly to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the consequent catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But the ministry said it has not tracked down all bullying cases involving Fukushima evacuees.

The confirmed cases are, of course, the tip of the iceberg.

In some past cases, the victims suffered various forms of verbal abuse.

“The nuclear plant exploded because of people like you,” is one example of verbal harassment hurled at a bullying victim. “Don’t come close to me. I don’t want to get contaminated with radiation,” is another.

These harrowing stories of bullying are reminiscent of the high-profile harassment case involving a boy who moved from Fukushima to Yokohama with his family after the accident. In that case, which made headlines in the media last autumn, the boy stopped attending classes.

“Behind the problem is a lack of understanding about radiation and the situations of evacuees,” said education minister Hirokazu Matsuno.

Children tend to be influenced by the words and attitudes of adults around them. The problem of rampant bullying of Fukushima evacuees reflects a lack of understanding among adults about the plight of these people.

But some Cabinet members have also made remarks that hurt the feelings of people in Fukushima Prefecture.

Masahiro Imamura, the minister in charge of rebuilding areas affected by the nuclear accident, for example, recently said so-called "voluntary evacuees," or people who have fled areas not subject to evacuation orders, are “responsible for their lives.”

Nobuteru Ishihara, speaking about where to store contaminated soil from the crippled nuclear plant, said, “In the end, it will come down to money.”

Tamayo Marukawa, while voicing skepticism about the government’s goal for lowering radiation levels around the plant, said, “There are people who express anxiety no matter how much (radiation levels) are lowered, people who can be called the ‘anti-radiation’ crowd, if I may use an unusual term.”

Both made these remarks while serving as environment minister.

The government seems to be betting that an increase in the number of Fukushima evacuees who return home will help the reconstruction of the prefecture make progress, or at least make it look as if progress is being made.

The government’s desire and efforts to see that happen may be making Fukushima evacuees not returning home feel small.

If a lack of understanding is the cause of bullying of children from Fukushima, adults have the responsibility to give children opportunities to learn and think about the reality.

Collections of materials for ethics education compiled by the Fukushima prefectural board of education may help. Different versions designed for classes at elementary, junior and senior high schools are now available and can be obtained from the education board’s website.

The collections include materials based on real stories concerning such serious topics as the feelings of local residents who were forced to leave their homes, discrimination driven by fears of radiation and unfounded prejudice against agricultural products grown in Fukushima.

Reports and documentaries describing the lives of evacuees and the realities of Fukushima can also be used as teaching materials.

These topics and issues can also be dealt with along with those related to radiation in comprehensive learning or contemporary social studies classes.

People in Fukushima have made different decisions on such vital questions as whether they should leave their communities or stay and whether they should return home to make a fresh start or rebuild their lives where they are living now. That’s because there is no simple answer to these questions.

“We hope children will have honest discussions, recognize that they may disagree on some issues and learn to get along while respecting one another,” says a Fukushima prefectural board of education member.

The problem of bullying of Fukushima evacuees should be taken as a good opportunity for educators to tackle the challenge of offering classes designed to encourage children to think on their own instead of instilling ideas and views into them.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 16