Japan beyond 3.11 Stories of Recovery

A Shortage of Playgrounds

This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on March 2, 2015

Tomorrow Logo

Children study and play as they grow. There are currently 250,000 children up to the age of 14 living in the disaster-stricken coastal areas of Tohoku. One aspect of their life changed dramatically after the 3.11 earthquake.


It became difficult for them to play freely outside.

Outside of school

Temporary housing complexes were one of the reasons. Many units were built in the school playgrounds and parks where the children used to play.


This led to a shortage of places where they could play to their heart’s content.

Young girl

“I watched TV at home… I didn’t play outside.”

Young Boy

“I didn’t have any toys, and I wasn’t allowed to be noisy.”

Corridor run

To address this issue, a variety of initiatives have been launched in disaster-stricken areas to ensure the fitness of children.

Bobby Ologun

Today’s reporter is Bobby Ologun from Nigeria, an TV personality who is very popular among children in Japan.

Bobby Ologun

“There’s concern about the physical ability of the children in the disaster-stricken areas. They lost many of their playgrounds.
I want to see what’s going on now. I have four kids, and playing is difficult even in non-disaster areas. I want to see how the Tohoku parents and kids are doing.”
(Bobby Ologun: Reporter)

Bobby martial arts

Bobby Ologun is also known as a martial artist in Japan.

Bobby play

Watch him get physically involved as he reports on the initiatives!

Bow and arrow

“I’ve found my prey… Are you watching?”

A Shortage of Playgrounds

This is Toni-cho in Kamaishi City in Iwate Prefecture. 30% of its houses were damaged by the tsunami in the Great East Japan Earthquake.


First, Bobby heads to the town’s only elementary school.

(Mutsumi Ojima: Curriculum Coodinator )

“It says ‘junior high school’, but isn’t this an elementary school?”


“Yes. This is Toni Elementary School, but the school building was swept away, so we had a temporary school built in the junior high school playground so that the children could study.”
(Mutsumi Ojima)

“The elementary and junior high schools have merged?”

“This is the elementary school, and this is the junior high school.”
(Mutsumi Ojima)

School building

The junior high school was demolished, too, and it is currently housed in a temporary building. Toni Elementary School was built right next to it.

Before tsunami

Toni Elementary School used to be located near the sea. Its huge playground and pool were the pride of the students.

After tsunami

But the building was badly damaged by the tsunami in the earthquake four years ago.

New location

The school moved to the junior high school playground, which is located on a hill.


The playground is now only an eighth of its former size because of the temporary school buildings.

At the gymnasium

Students of the two schools also have to share the gymnasium. Taking turns to use it. So there is a limit to how much time they can spend there.

At the gymnasium 2

The children now have no place where they can play to their heart’s content.

Teacher talks

“The kids want to exercise, but they can't. How has this affected them?”

“Well, as you say, it’s impossible now for the children to exercise freely, so they tend to get stressed out.”
(Mutsumi Ojima)

“Stress is the worst enemy of children. It even affects their studies, right?”

“That’s right. At times, I think they find it very hard to concentrate on their studies.”
(Mutsumi Ojima)

Bobby commutes

The way the children commute to and from school has also changed drastically.

“Good morning.”

Boy takes the bus

“Do you always catch the bus at this time? Do you ride the bus home, too?”


Girl takes the bus

“Is it far to school? How long does it take to walk there?”

“About an hour.”

Bobby takes the bus

Before the earthquake, many of the children walked to school, but now they take the school bus. The reason is that more than half the children are living in temporary housing located a long way from the school.

“Which do you prefer, walking or taking the bus?”

“The bus!”

Little boy takes the bus

What about you?”

“The bus!”

“But you can play on your way home if you walk.You can look at the river, grasshoppers, butterflies, right?”


“But you prefer the bus? You're not interested in butterflies?”

Arrive at school

Besides losing the chance to see butterflies, the children now have far fewer opportunities to exercise.

“Hang in there!”

Test results

The children’s lives have changed dramatically, and this is clearly shown in the data. These are the results of a physical fitness survey of Grade 5 boys carried out one year after the earthquake. The average scores were lower in many of the tests.

Test report

This is a report compiled by the Iwate Prefecture Education Committee. It suggests that the deterioration, especially in coastal areas damaged badly by the tsunami, was due to lack of exercise after the earthquake.

Lower test scores

There is also data indicating that the average physical fitness of Grade 5 children deteriorated after the earthquake in all three prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.

Initiative launch

This prompted Toni Elementary School to launch an initiative.

Exercise begin

The children gather in the gymnasium during recess…

Exercise middle


This is a special exercise routine they began after the earthquake, called “Kibi-Kibi Exercise”.

Side step

First, they step left and right in rhythm to the music.


The tempo speeds up.

Short brake

After 60 seconds, there is a short break, and then they are off again!

Exercise continued

Next, they do repetitive side jumps with knees bent. The tempo speeds up again. The whole routine lasts for only two minutes. But it is very strenuous.


Bobby will also play

Now it is martial artist Bobby’s turn. His challenge is to keep up with the kids!

In the middle of things

“This is hard!”

Bobby’s falling behind!

“10 more seconds!”

He is finding it impossible to keep up.


It is only lasted two minutes, but Bobby’s dead beat.

Exercise finished

“Did you enjoy this exercise?”

“It was fun.”

“I was about ready to give up! I'm so unfit! It's really hard. You all did very well.”

Running around

The children are still full of energy after exercising. It is a Technical Knockout victory for them!

“I give up!”

Tsukaba university

The exercise routine was the idea of a Tsukuba University research team.

The Prof. explains it

Prof. Hideaki Soya carries out research into the relationship between exercise and the mind, from a neuro-endocrinological perspective.

“It’s a short routine consisting of three to four basic exercises with breaks in between, and it speeds up with the music. It’s packed full of action, with sidesteps, changes in direction, and small jumps, and in fact it has the effect of cheering up everyone who tries doing it. This, in turn, makes people feel more optimistic and revitalized, so it’s clearly very good for their mental health, too.”
(Hideaki Soya: Professor, Exercise Biochemistry and Neuroendocrinology)


This table shows the results of Grade 5 children after doing the Kibi-Kibi Exercise for one month. You can see a dramatic improvement in their performance of repetitive side jumps compared with what they could do before they started it.

More exercise

These two-minute exercises are now being implemented at around 10 elementary schools in the disaster-stricken areas, and they are helping to alleviate the lack of exercise.

Miyagi pref.

There is also a town where an outdoor playground was built by local residents. This is Kitakami-cho in Northern Ishinomaki City. Over 600 of its houses were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami.

Temporary housing

Here too temporary houses were built in places where the children’s used to play.


Bobby has heard that there is a park up in the forested hills built by local parents.

Bobby climbs

“I haven’t been climbing recently. The kids here must be tough. Why is it up here?”

Bobby climbs up the path for about three minutes…

Bobby arrives

Then he sees what looks like a secret hideaway...

“I’m Bobby Ologun. This is hard work!”

Meeting place

“What are you doing? I heard that there’s an amazing park here in Kitakami-cho.”

“It’s not a park.”

“A play park?”

Behind the school

This play park was built behind the elementary school after the earthquake. It has been named “Urayama.”

Children on slide

It makes use of a space cleared for the school as an evacuation site. The children can play here freely after school and on weekends.

Bobby on slide

Bobby decides to join in…

“Be careful!”

“No rope?”

“Of course not. Men don’t use ropes.”

“You might hurt yourself.”

“Who needs a rope?”

“Okay, I'll take it away.”

It looks dangerous, Bobby!

“I’m brave. I'm Bobby Ologun. Wabi Sabi Bobby, Bobby Ologun!”

Bobby gets swung

“This isn’t a swing!”

This is a game the children love most. What are they going to do…?

“This is scary!”

“Ready, go!”


Ah, just as we thought!

“No! No! Am I still on Earth?”

Trying to walk straight

“I’m going to stand up now.”

“Walk straight!”

He is completely dizzy.

Hugging a tree

“Who are you?”

Once again, Bobby gets knocked out!

Bow and arrow

One boy is playing with a toy he has made himself.

“Are you hunting? Can I see it?”

Using the bow

Bobby is from Nigeria, and this is something he says he is good at…

“That’s no good! I did this all the time when I was a kid. I’m a man who’s even shot a zebra! I’ll show you how it’s done.
You take aim… I’ve found my prey… Are you watching?”

Arrow landed in snow

“Hey, stop laughing!”


Mika Takeyama plays a central role in the running of this park. She is the mother of three children. When the parks disappeared, she came up with the idea of making use of the wealth of nature in Kitakami to create a place for the children to play.

Volunteer interview

“There weren’t many children to begin with. The community was dispersed after the earthquake, they couldn’t play unless there was somewhere for them to gather. They couldn’t play in their neighborhoods. They really needed a place where they could get together.”
(Mika Takeyama: Representative, Kitakami Play Park Volunteer Association)

Hammering away

Then Mika met Tsutomu Sunaga of the Japan Adventure Playground Association. He says that children can find ways of having fun even without great facilities.

Built playground

Tsutomu and all the people around made the equipment here using scrap wood. They have also made use of the natural topography.

Interview with volunteer

“Children are full of ideas. But they need to let it all out. If you give them freedom, you can leave them alone and they’ll be fine. I want them to find ways to play on their own. That’s how they learn not to injure themselves.”
(Tsutomu Sunaga: Japan Adventure Playground Association)

Boy at park

Any children can play here at any time of the year.

“After the park was made, we made a huge sled together, and we enjoy playing on the slide in summer… It’s great fun!”

Girl at park

Some children had to move away from the town with their families, but they still come back here to play.

“I wasn’t playing. I just watched TV at home…and didn’t play outside… I was very bored, and couldn’t get motivated to do anything at all.”

But now she is a regular visitor to the park.

Wander in forrest

There is apparently an ultimate hideaway for the kids.

Bobby follows

“OK, I’m strong. I’m going to keep up with you all. Everyone’s so fit!”

The kids have even turned the forest into their playground.

A swingset

Bobby discovers a swing!

“This is great.”

Bobby is a little tired, but he is relieved to see how happy the children are.

“The children are now healthier. They don’t catch colds anymore. And they’re a lot more muscular! My four-year-old has rippling stomach muscles! I think they’re a lot fitter. They’re happier, too. They also talk with different people, so they have all kinds of ideas, and they can express their own opinions. That’s how they’ve changed.”
(Mika Takeyama)

Bobby explains

“I was wondering why they built a park up a hill. Now I can see why. A play park surrounded by nature is just what the kids need. I hope people all over Japan copy this idea.”

Koriyama city

Fukushima Prefecture is faced with a particular shortage of places where children can play.

Distance from TEPCO

This is Koriyama City, about 60 kilometers from where the accident occurred at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

Warning sign

At one stage, restrictions were placed on the amount of time children could play outside because of the radiation from the power station.

Abandoned playground

The restriction has now been lifted, but many parents still refrain from letting their children play outside.

Walking home

This is a nursery school in the city. People were shocked to learn that places where their children used to play had changed after the earthquake.

The principal speaks

“I was asked by an elementary school teacher if I knew what they had to teach the children first. It was a real shock when I found out that the children were no longer allowed to play on the swings.”
(Hironori Azuma: Deputy Principal)

Abandoned swings

Children normally learn to ride on a swing when they reach the age of around four. It is an important exercise that builds up muscles and a sense of balance. Some young children have grown up not knowing such basic ways of playing because they could not play outside after the earthquake.


Given this situation, Shintaro Kikuchi, a pediatrician, felt a sense of impending crisis. Dr. Kikuchi had kept a close watch on the children since immediatley after the earthquake, and he notice changes their state of health.


“For example, they’d run out of breath after only taking a short walk. They’d get tired quickly, and you could tell straight away that they were unfit.”
(Shintaro Kikuchi: Pediatrician)

PEP kids

This prompted Dr. Kikuchi to spearhead the establishment of a particular facility.

Bobby arriving

“What is this? A nursery school? A school?”

“This is a place where children can play freely.”
(Staff: PEP kids Koriyama)

Indoor of PEP kids

PEP Kids Koriyama is one Tohoku’s biggest indoor play facilities.


There is an unusual indoor sandpit,

Ball pool

a pool of 100,000 balls,

Corridor running

and even a 30-meter running track.

“On your marks! Get set. Go!”

The children are fast!

Slippery slide

“I won! This is scary!”

Children climbing on Bobby

“Wow! I'm getting a lot of exercise!”

Visiting mother

“My son's nearly two… He loves it.”

Father and child

“It’s fun. It’s good the children can play to their heart’s content.”

Floor plan

Around 20 types of play equipment have been installed in a space equal to the size of six tennis courts.

So much fun at one place

Children can run…jump…throw…and hang, gaining all the skills they acquire naturally when playing outside.


The facility opened in December 2011. A major supermarket provided the building in response to Dr. Kikuchi’s proposal.


A company that imports and sells toys gave support in providing toys and equipment.

Opening ceremony

It opened a mere nine months after the earthquake.

Packed with people

It is operated mainly by Koriyama City, and entry is free.

Around 1,800 parents and children visit on busy days. It is a place where the children can play at anytime without worrying about radiation.

Similar initiatives

The prefectural government and other city authorities have acknowledged its success, and there are now 60 similar facilities all over the prefecture.


“It’s not about how dangerous it is outside, but showing that where there’s a will there’s a way, and as a result revitalizing Fukushima’s children. I want them to become the happiest kids in Japan.”

These children carry the future of the disaster-stricken areas on their shoulders. We discovered that they are gradually rediscovering happiness through a variety of initiatives. We all pray that the day will soon come when they will once again be able to play outside to their heart’s content.

Bobby parting words

“I discovered the dream goes on. These Tohoku kids are beautiful, and trying to move on. And their parents have found a common ground to make their kids happy again. I hope these kids have the power and ability to be No.1 in the world. Yes, we can!”

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