Image: Children attend a ceremony on their first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in Fukushima.
Carlos Barria  /  Reuters
Children attend a ceremony on their first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in Fukushima, northern Japan, Wednesday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/6/2011 6:57:52 AM ET 2011-04-06T10:57:52

More than 70 schools began regular classes in Fukushima for the first time Wednesday, after government officials carried out radiation testing in the prefecture amid the ongoing nuclear crisis.

A ceremony was held to mark the first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in the city of Fukushima since the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country on March 11, causing radiation leaks at a power plant.

The Kyodo news agency in Japan reported that regional government officials began on Tuesday to carry out radiation testing at 1,400 kindergartens, elementary schools and junior high schools.

Officials said there would not be any problems provided the children stayed outside the evacuation zone created around the plant, Kyodo reported. Evacuation is mandatory up to 12.5-miles and advised up to 19.5 miles.

Kyodo said parents had expressed concern about walking their children to school and allowing them to play in school yards.

Some children from Fukushima have been evacuated elsewhere.

Video: Radiation fears seep into Japanese futures

Keisuke Takahashi, 7, is staying at a youth center in Tokyo, CNN reported, while his parents work or look after other family members.

"I just got a letter from my mom," he told the broadcaster at Minamisuna Primary School. "It says that she is hurting because we're separated. But she says don't worry, we will go home together after the nuclear power plant settles down."

"I haven't got used to the life yet, because I have to live separately from my mom. I miss her," he added.

Distress behind the smiles
Experts are concerned about the effects of the disaster on children, behind the smiling faces of thousands in shelters across Japan.

"That's what is so wonderfully adaptive about children. They can move very easily into playing or laughing," said psychologist Susie Burke, a disaster response specialist with the Australian Psychological Society. "But that's not saying they're not deeply distressed and upset about what's going on."

Reminders of the tiniest victims are scattered throughout the wreckage: a little girl's white shoe caked in mud, a red rubber ball coated in dust, a sodden comic book whose ink has run.

As many as 25,000 people may have been killed in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast and damaged a nuclear plant, sending radiation spewing into the environment. Tens of thousands are still living in shelters.

For the children, the monster in the closet has been replaced by the monster of Mother Nature: The ground they play on can rattle and crack, the ocean they swim in can morph into a killer wave, the air they breathe might carry harmful radioactive particles.

Ten-year-old Fumie Unoura was sitting in class when the earth began to shake, sending her and her classmates scrambling under their desks for cover.

When the rumbling stopped, the teacher shepherded the students outside, where their town had turned to rubble.

"I saw the dust rising up," she recalled days later, standing outside a shelter in the shattered coastal city of Rikuzentakata.

With the tsunami coming, she ran as fast as her short legs could carry her, surrounded by others sprinting for safety.

She escaped with her life but little else. Her home is ruined. She sleeps on the floor of a school gym with her family and more than a thousand other survivors. She misses her Nintendo DS.

Her father, Masanari Unoura, volunteers at the shelter. He worries constantly about what will become of his life, where they will live, how he will clean up the ruins of their home.

"We parents have a lot to think about," he says. "Whereas the kids are basically free."

Fear of being alone
Save the Children, an international aid agency, has set up safe spaces for children to meet and play throughout the tsunami zone, with toys, games, crayons and paper.

"The stories they were sharing with me were about first an earthquake, then a tsunami and now their fears for radiation," says Ian Woolverton, a spokesman for the group.

But one fear reigned supreme, he says: "Being alone is the thing they're most afraid of."

At a shelter in Kesennuma, a group of boys plays basketball while volunteers from a Tokyo church give massages to elderly people on the second floor.

Sixteen-year-old Keisuke Iwate came here to visit his friend Yohei Sugawara. "There are people without homes," Iwate says. "They're not saying how sad they are, but you know they're feeling it."

Sugawara, also 16, said that the tsunami ruined the first floor of his house. Then a fire burned it down.

These days, he, too, has carved out a new routine.

"I help out at the refugee center every morning," he says. "And then we go and try to clean up the place where our house was and look for anything that might be left."

He's better off, he says, than another friend whose parents were killed.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Geiger counters commonplace in Japan's new normal

  1. Closed captioning of: Geiger counters commonplace in Japan's new normal

    >>> turning now to japan, there was some good news for a change today. workers at that crippled nuclear power plant have managed to stop tons of highly radioactive water from seeping into the ocean, but now the workers have had any number of other problems on their hands, not the least of which preventing another hydrogen explosion. nbc's lee cowan remains in tokyo for us tonight and has our report.

    >> reporter: any euphoria over stopping the flood of radioactive water that had been gushing into the ocean was pretty short lived. workers now have a more pressing problem, preventing another explosion at the still steaming plant. engineers began injecting nitrogen into the containment building around reactor one. the nitrogen could prevent explosive hydrogen from building. youp the culprit that caused the blasts that ripped through the plant almost four weeks ago. today pregnant women and young children were urged to leave this village even though it's outside the government evacuation zone after radiation levels there spiked. school children are now routinely screened for exposure. geiger counters almost as common as lunch boxes now. it was an odd backdrop for the first day of the new school year. and anxious parents who had been holding their children close had to let go. there was plenty of pageantry to help dilute the news. but it was still tough. having been evacuated from near the plant she's one of six refugees who is now a new student, too. "she was crying when she first came," her mother said. but at least there's six of them. so that's the only hope. it's all very orderly and pretty remarkable given how many schools along the coast were destroyed. in the tokyo area alone, they've seen an influx of more than 2500 students who now have to find a new home. "i will miss my friends" she says. but we will see each other again, i hope. but as long as the situation remains unresolved, going home may be a long way off. lee cowan, nbc news,

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

  1. Above: Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  2. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

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