School is back in session in this Ehime mountain town, where the student body has dramatically expanded to a very small size.

Six-year-old Nozomi Fujioka is a first-grader at Yanagidani Elementary School. She’s a bright, articulate, and energetic kid, but even if she wasn’t, she’d still make a big impression on all the school’s teachers and staff. Why? Because she’s the one and only student in her entire class.

Nestled in the mountains of Ehime Prefecture, the Yanagidani district of the town of Kumakogencho only has about 540 residents, and not a lot of them are kids. The Japanese school year starts in April, and in 2023, 2022, and 2021 Yanagidani Elementary had zero new first-graders. As a matter of fact, the town has so few elementary school-age kids that for 2023 they simply shut the elementary school for an entire year.

But 2024 is different, as Nozomi, whose father Tsuyoshi was born and raised in Yanagidani, became the school’s first new first-grader in three years, and in keeping with Japanese school customs, Yanagi Elementary held an entrance ceremony for her, which can be seen in the video below.

“New students for 2024: Nozomi Fujioka,” an administrator calls out. Nozomi stands and says “Present,” and the administrator replies “One new student.”

Like many rural communities in Japan, Yanagidani’s number of residents has been steadily shrinking in recent years as Japan’s population ages and what young people there are head to bigger cities for more ample academic and professional opportunities. But Nozomi likes living in Yanagidani, her father says, and he wants her to have a connection to the town too.

Although Nozomi is the school’s one and only first-grader, she won’t be entirely without schoolmates. Partially thanks to local promotional efforts to encourage people to move to the area, two families have relocated to Yanagidani since last school year, and there will be a total of four children taking classes at the elementary school this year. Nozomi will be the youngest, but she isn’t worried about getting along with her upperclassman. “I’m looking forward to school,” she says at the point in the video below, followed by a confident “I’m not worried about anything. I can make friends wherever I go.”

Her schoolmates attitudes seem equally outgoing, with one of them, a fifth-grade boy, telling her “If there’s something you don’t understand, please ask me. Let’s be friends and have fun at school.”

Nozomi’s father is happy that she’ll have social interactions with other students while learning. “I’m glad the school could be reopened. I thought she might be alone there, so it’s a relief that there are other kids who have transferred in.”

▼ Yanagidani Elementary School

During Nozomi’s entrance ceremony, Yanagidani Elementary principal Masatoshi Fukuda, dressed in a formal coat with tails, said “Everyone in town has been looking forward to this. Please enjoy your school life and trying many new things.” Following the ceremony, Nozomi was issued her textbooks and greeted by a contingent of representatives from the town, who held up a banner congratulating her on the start of her elementary academics.

▼ If you need an extra dose of adorableness, here’s the point in the ceremony where Nozomi declares “Benkyou wo ganbarimasu” (“I’ll study hard.”).

Though overcrowding definitely won’t be an issue, the school plans to teach separate lessons for different-year students in the same room, which should help bolster school spirit and comradery. P.E. classes also look like they’ll be a group affair, as the video shows Nozomi and her upperclassmen playing soccer together.

What makes the whole situation extra heartwarming is that prior to starting elementary school, Nozomi attended a local preschool where she was friends with three younger children. Knowing that Yanagidani Elementary is up and running again, and with a happy, if small, student body just might be enough to convince those younger kids’ families to stay nearby as their kids go through elementary school, and help keep a few more people in the community.

Source: NHK News Web, YouTube/eatニュースチャンネル【愛媛朝日テレビ】
Top image: Pakutaso
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!