KARAKUWA, Japan — Zoom in for a snapshot of apparent normalcy: children sitting in a circle, clasping playing cards tightly in their hands. They laugh, chat and occasionally hop up to break into a goofy dance.
Zoom out and the picture changes: The children are kneeling on mattresses in a chilly classroom they now call home. An elderly woman cries nearby, wondering whether her mother was killed by Japan's tsunami. Outside the school, a teacher fiddles with a radiation detector, checking to ensure the levels aren't high enough to make them sick.
Behind the smiling faces of thousands of children in shelters across this wave-battered wasteland, experts say there is often serious anxiety as everything these youngsters once held as normal is suddenly anything but.
"That's what is so wonderfully adaptive about children. They can move very easily into playing or laughing," says psychologist Susie Burke, a disaster response specialist with the Australian Psychological Society. "But that's not saying they're not deeply distressed and upset about what's going on."
Reminders of the tiniest victims are scattered throughout the wreckage: a little girl's white shoe caked in mud, a red rubber ball coated in dust, a sodden comic book whose ink has run.
As many as 25,000 people may have been killed in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast. Tens of thousands are still living in shelters.
For the children, the monster in the closet has been replaced by the monster of Mother Nature: The ground they play on can rattle and crack, the ocean they swim in can morph into a killer wave, the air they breathe might carry harmful radioactive particles.
Ten-year-old Fumie Unoura remembers well the terror of the day. She was sitting in class when the earth began to shake, sending her and her classmates scrambling under their desks for cover. When the rumbling stopped, the teacher shepherded the students outside, where their town had turned to rubble. "I saw the dust rising up," she recalled days later, standing outside a shelter in the shattered coastal city of Rikuzentakata. She escaped with her life but little else.
The disruption of daily life, if prolonged, can be more damaging than the disaster itself, says psychologist Gaithri Fernando, who led a study on how the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami affected children in Sri Lanka. Suddenly discovering they have no water to bathe, no bed of their own and no school where they can see their friends can be highly upsetting, says Fernando, a professor at California State University in Los Angeles. Experts say getting children back into a routine — even an unusual one — is key.