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May 2000

Kids Near Volcano Greet New School Year in Shelters

Mount Usu in Hokkaido--northernmost of Japan's four main islands--is still sending up columns of white and gray smoke after the first eruption in 23 years on March 31. Children in the affected areas greeted the new school year, which began in April, in community centers and other public shelters.

Though Mount Usu, located near a hot spring resort around 70 kilometers southwest of Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital, has yet to spew forth lava, magma is believed to be moving up toward the mountain's summit.

A few days before the first eruption some 20,000 people living near the volcano evacuated to public facilities in safer districts, including the gymnasium of Date Elementary School in the city of Date.

The school held an entrance ceremony for 91 first graders on April 7 in the second-floor passageway connecting two school buildings. The principal's welcome speech was sometimes lost in the roar of a helicopter observing Mount Usu's volcanic activity. Eri Tsumaki, the mother of one of the new pupils, said she was happy that the ceremony could be held at all.

Another school in Date, Usu Elementary School, held a ceremony on April 10 in the music room of Date Elementary School. They borrowed the room because their own school was inside the evacuation area. Ninety-six pupils attended the ceremony, some coming on foot and others bused from nearby shelters or relatives' homes.

There have been many inconveniences. Neither school has been able to hold gym classes on rainy days, and schoolchildren are unable to use large instruments during music class. But most kids seem to be enjoying living in the shelters, and they have volunteered with their teachers to help other evacuees cope with the stress of being away from home.

Kazuyoshi Konuma, vice-principal of Date Elementary School, said he hoped the situation would become a positive experience that will teach kids the importance of helping one another in emergencies.

There are 86 active volcanoes in Japan. Japan's Meteorological Agency says that large and small eruptions occur at about 5 of these volcanoes each year.

Photos: Unable to use the gymnasium, the school held its opening ceremony in a corridor; children playing soccer outside an evacuation shelter. Smoke from Mt. Usu can be seen in the background. (Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun)