"What happened to all of our friends?" I inquire about the toys, trying to solicit a past tense verb.
While I applaud his use of sophisticated vocabulary, my heart sinks into my stomach.
Maybe on some level he knows that a wave was the reason his preschool`s production of "The Hungry Caterpillar"- for which he had been cast in the lead role- had to be cancelled back in March, even though he had already made his costume and had memorized all of his lines (and everyone else`s too!) flawlessly.
Luckily for all his toys, it is not long before the boy morphs into an alien spider monkey (I am not making this up) and zaps the wave into oblivion with his laser beam.
"Ok, the end!" I say "Let`s play something els--"
"No!" he shouts defiantly, "Again!"
I should have known better. When a four-year-old thinks up a good game, it is never, ever satisfactory to play it just once. Before I know it, the evil blanket wave is already in motion again.
"Oh where, oh where is alien spider monkey when we need him the most?"
I remember reading somewhere, just after the earthquake, that it is important not to stop children from playing "earthquake" or "tsunami" reenactment games, because kids work out their trauma through play in a manner similar to the way adults work through their issues in dreams.
From what I saw during my time at the shelters in Fukushima, however, "tsunami" has yet to become so popular a game. I suppose it is hard to work through a trauma that is very much still going on. Nobody wants to play "earthquake" when the real thing is still happening on a daily basis. It just feels stupid and boring.
Balloon popping, on the other hand, is a very good game, especially when there is a giant box in the corner of the playroom of partially deflated rabbits, dachshunds giraffes, flowers and swords. Such a box becomes inevitable when clowns and the like have been showing up on a regular basis for months, and their tricks always include balloon animals for everyone.
However, it becomes a very different ballgame when you are holding the child-safe scissors in your own hands, and you have complete control over which balloons are destroyed and which ones, if any, are saved.
"Raise your hand if you like the balloon popping game!" calls out an eight year old.
"Now raise your hand if you want to pop more!"
Everyone raises her hand except the oldest, an 8th grader who complains that the game is very mottai nai, wasteful, and nobody wants to be wasteful these days.
And then there are the two brothers, aged about 5 and 11, who are not paying any attention. They keep mostly to themselves in another corner, reading manga and playing with dinosaurs. Perhaps they are somewhat intimidated by a playroom overrun by hyperactive girls.
The boys, I had learned from another volunteer the day before, are originally from Fukushima but had been living in a shelter in Saitama, further south. Unfortunately, these boys were teased at their school in Saitama- for being "radioactive" even while they have certificates to certify that they have not been exposed to radiation- and so the family has returned Fukushima as a result.
I join the boys in the corner, with a box of stickers, some writing utensils and bunch of pre-stapled blank books.
The 5-year-old makes a book about dinosaurs, because he is obsessed with them. His older brother, to his own gradually overflowing amusement, authors a darling little book he has entitled "kyoufu no hon," or "book of horrors."
"Book of Horrors," as it happens, contains the most terrifying images that an 11-year-old boy can imagine within the confines of a pen, paper and a box of stickers.
The Cat in The Hat, for one, has been behaving very badly.
And below we have a "dinosaur with a hangover" which is certainly a very terrifying thought.
If it were up to me, "Book of Horrors" would become an instant classic. I am not an expert or anything, but I think that creativity can be a good way of reasserting control over at least some aspects of our environment.
It reminds me of the instance, at a different shelter on another day, when some news media shows up to take some pictures of the kids in the playroom. When this happens another volunteer- quite brilliantly I think- lends one of the kids his own giant camera, empowering the junior high school boy to take his own pictures of the media and of everyone else who happened to be around at the time. The boy seems to enjoy this very much. And then, some time around the tenth or so photo he shoots of me, I feel the need to take out my own cell phone camera as well.
So here we are.