Working with children and young people to build community resilience in Fukushima

by Alison Lloyd Williams, Lancaster University

I’ve just returned from a two-month research fellowship in Fukushima, Japan and have been asked to write about the work I have been doing there. Funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, this project built on our Children, Young People and Flooding project and connects with our ongoing CUIDAR programme.

The fellowship was hosted by Aya Goto, Professor of Health Information and Epidemiology, and her colleagues at Fukushima Medical University (FMU). I worked with a class of children from Tsukidate Elementary School in Date City and a group of nursing and medical students from FMU, using theatre methods to investigate how children and young people can contribute to the building of more resilient communities in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima ‘triple’ disaster – the Great East Japan earthquake and ensuing tsunami and nuclear power plant accident. I also interviewed staff from FMU and members of local government involved in response and recovery work following the disaster.

Group performance work and discussion in Tsukidate

As requested by the school, the work with the children in Tsukidate focused mainly on the future, rather than looking back at the accident. During the workshops the children discussed and presented their ideas about their community: what they liked about it, what had changed during their last six years at school (they started in Class 1 one month after the earthquake) and what improvements they would like to see. They created actions on their own and in groups, developing these into short scenes which they showed to each other and discussed. Some developed their ideas in song, senryu poetry or letters. We then gathered all their work together into a performance piece that presented a vision of the Tsukidate community from the children’s perspective, highlighting its strengths and its challenges and the children’s ideas as to how to address some of the challenges. This piece was performed as part of the school’s annual presentation day event for parents and members of the local community.


Workshop with students at Fukushima Medical University

The FMU students tried out various theatre techniques, creating small sketches and discussing how these approaches could be used in a health setting, such as to communicate health information, to elicit information from the community and to encourage medical professionals to problem solve or reflect on their practice. The students watched the Tsukidate children’s performance and wrote a response in letter form, which they performed during a public talk I gave about the project just before returning home.

Working with the staff and students at FMU encouraged me to think about community development and disaster recovery in terms of community ‘health’ and it was useful to connect the methods I was using on this project with my host’s work in the area of health literacy. This approach to public health, with its focus on dialogue and a sharing of knowledge, can be mapped onto some of the theory that underpins applied theatre work and is useful in understanding how to bridge the gap between health and development/education workers and local communities that has been exposed by the disaster.

The final presentation at Tsukidate Elementary School

Participatory theatre is relatively unknown in Japan so the project provided a useful opportunity to test out this approach with children and young people in educational settings. The methods proved successful and my host and I would like to develop a follow-on visit in a year’s time to find out from the participants about the longer term impact of taking part.

During the last week of my visit, on 22nd November, Fukushima experienced a severe earthquake and tsunami alert. Reported to be an aftershock from the 2011 earthquake, this experience gave me a very different perspective on the research and I now regularly check earthquake activity on