Fourteen-year-old Karin Hirakuri relished her time at the beach in far north Queensland.
July 28, 2019
Fourteen-year-old Karin Hirakuri hasn’t been allowed to play outside since she was six years old and every time she goes to the supermarket, she worries her food could be unsafe to eat.
High school students from Fukushima exercise, play and spend most of their time indoors
Refresh programs in Australia give children the chance to connect with families and experience the outdoors
Some children are finding career inspiration through refresh programs
Growing up in Fukushima, Japan, after the catastrophic tsunami and the meltdown of four nuclear reactors in 2011, Karin’s childhood has been spent mostly indoors to limit her exposure to radiation.
She is one of eight high school students in far north Queensland this week with Smile With Kids, a not-for-profit organisation that pairs children from Fukushima with Australian host families.
The program began in 2014, inspired by other “refresh camps” that aim to give Fukushima children a week of outdoor activities.
“They can just come and enjoy nature without worry,” Smile With Kids founder Maki McCarthy said.
A highlight for Karin was sinking her feet in the sand and feeling the spray of seawater on her face at Palm Cove beach, north of Cairns, on Thursday.
“I wasn’t able to go swimming at the beach for five years,” she said.
“We cannot play outside in Fukushima.
“We have to play in the gym or in the house.”
Ongoing concern for young people
Health risks associated with radiation exposure are low in Japan and extremely low in other neighbouring countries, according to the World Health Organisation.
But illness is still a big concern for some young people.
Karin said the fear of developing cancer was always in the back of her mind.
“We think about it a lot,” she said.
The Fukushima Health Management Survey found rates of psychological distress was far greater in Fukushima compared with other areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Daiichi power plant meltdown.
It also found an increased prevalence of lifestyle-related diseases like obesity and hypertension after the disaster.
“It’s had a big impact on people,” Ms McCarthy said.
Hirotaka Kuchiki has developed a passion for food and organic farming after the Fukushima disaster.
Looking to the future
Despite the ongoing problems some students in Fukushima face, their experience of the disaster has also been a source of motivation.
Sixteen-year-old Hirotaka Kuchiki said he wanted to become an organic farmer after learning about sustainable agriculture on another refresh camp in Japan.
“After the earthquake everything around me changed,” Hirotaka said.
“I couldn’t eat the food around the area, even the fish I couldn’t eat.
“Later I met an organic farmer in the south of Japan and the organic farmer’s life inspired me, and I want to be like the farmer.”
Smile With Kids host Catherine Gunn has been accommodating Fukushima students for the past three years and said the experience had been eye-opening.
“It opens my world up,” Ms Gunn said.
“Also the reflection on how lucky we are in Australia.
“We’ve never experience anything like [the nuclear disaster] in Australia, we have a very free life.”
Ms Gunn said she learnt a lot from the students, including some great card-playing skills.
“Because the students can’t go out and play outside, they play a lot of Uno,” she said.
“When one of the students was here we became really keen on playing Uno and every time she beat me.
“Now I am a champion, but we had so much fun.”
Ms McCarthy said the Smile With Kids program had doubled the number of students it was accepting each year, as more host families came on board.
Maki MaCarthy started Smile With Kids in 2014, three years after the Fukushima disaster and nuclear meltdown.