International school typifies Sendai’s community spirit

Students, teachers, parents, neighbors pull together and set sights on the future

by Kris Kosaka

Local merchants crowded in with proud parents and teachers, eyes glued to the screen and banners waving. It could have been anywhere in Japan during Koshien season: a community gathered around the television in the school cafeteria, neighbors coming together to cheer the home team at the annual spring national high school baseball tournament.

But this cafeteria Monday — 17 days after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake — was at Tohoku High School in Sendai, on the campus shared by Tohoku International School.

For James Steward, headmaster of the international school, watching the game with his neighbors means more than just sports or supporting your school. It represents the true spirit of community.

“The atmosphere was spectacular. The game was being broadcast on NHK, and the cafeteria was packed with about 200 people, including 10 to 15 television news crews from all over the region. The spirit in the room was absolutely amazing. In the end Tohoku High School lost the game — but they won the hearts of everyone who was there.”

Steward, 47, from North Bay, Ontario, savors the chance to even be in Sendai, savors the electricity needed for a television, but most of all he savors this community. Steward has many stories to share celebrating the community in the days after the quake.

There’s Dr. Kudo, whose son is in the fifth grade at Tohoku International School. “Dr. Kudo reacted so positively. Immediately after the quake, he drove to a corner store and picked up water and bread, just packed his car with food supplies, since he knew instinctively we would need something to eat. He brought it all to school. But it was typical of him. He’s always thinking of other people.”

Or another parent, Ms. Toshima, who runs an okonomiyaki eatery in town. She brought dinner for the several students still marooned at Steward’s house two days after the quake. Or Mr. Kato, the headmaster of the day-care center where Steward’s young son attends. He personally drove Steward’s son home to safety after the temblors subsided.

Or Richard Ryall, a physical education teacher at Tohoku International School, who along with Steward housed and cared for all the remaining students until their parents could be located, and Mr. Maeyama, headmaster of Tohoku High School, who shared water and other essentials in the aftermath.

Steward credits the entire staff of teachers and all the students, who reacted with calm and patience after the quake. No students were injured, and miraculously all parents eventually made it to campus to pick up their children.

Steward also credits the wider community around the school: the local store whose owners fairly distributed all its produce and meat the day after the quake, while locals calmly waited in line for their share.

“Everyone did a fantastic job of giving out food to everyone in the local community, which was so important in the first few days, when food was hard to come by,” he recalls.

Steward is justifiably proud of the Sendai community. “Even though this area has been relatively devastated by the recent terrible events, never once have I seen people acting in the wrong way. Everything is very orderly and systematic, people are generous and care about each other.

“The first four days after the quake, the city had nothing, no electricity, no water, no gas, no gasoline, no phone service, no Internet, no stores open. Yet everyone in our region banded together and tried to help each other as much as they could.”

As an educator, Steward has worked all around the world, from Vienna to Macau, from Kyrgyzstan to Singapore. Together with his wife, Alana, a Japanese-Canadian from Vancouver, and their three children, ages 3, 12 and 14, Steward took over as headmaster at Tohoku three years ago.

The international school draws its roughly 100 students from a wide range of families, geographically and otherwise. Japanese families from town, children of professors at Tohoku University or nearby Miyagi University, missionaries, and employees of the Sendai-based regional airline IBEX Airlines.

On March 9, Steward was in the cafeteria with the students when a magnitude 7.2 quake hit the area, but it was nothing unusual. Two days later, it was.

“We have many earthquakes in Japan, especially up in this area, but this one was like nothing anyone had ever felt before.

“It was massive, like freight trains driving through the school. The noise was incredible, things falling everywhere.”

Although the three-story building suffered some damage — ceiling panels crashing down, large panes of glass shattering on the third floor — no one was injured.

“The teachers and students evacuated perfectly. We ended up in the track and field area, outside the school where we always go for our practice evacuations. We sat there for close to an hour, and the field where we were sitting was like gelatin. It just kept rumbling and moving for hours after the quake.”

Staff took turns running into the building between tremors, to gather as many coats or other supplies they could find to combat the cold and snowy conditions. Eventually, everyone took shelter in the school bus, the only place that offered warmth.

“Keeping the kids busy and safe were our main concerns, so we gave out little jobs to do, for example, gathering firewood. We are close to a forest here, so we made a fire and had a barbecue outside each night with the food we could find. Thankfully, the two days after the quake were nice and sunny, so the kids played out in the streets, kicking balls around.”

Older kids helped out with younger kids; teachers became entertainers and caregivers, everyone focused on the positive — even with the fate of so many parents uncertain at that point. “The kid’s spirit was often what carried you through it,” Steward said.

Setting aside the harsh physical concerns in those first few days, the uncertainty and anxiety required strong spirit. “We had no electricity, so no television of course, but we were aware that the whole world could see us, on news channels like CNN or BBC. It was quite a surreal situation, 6 billion people could watch us, but we had no idea what was really happening.

“It was like we were in a bubble. Occasionally a phone call would make it through, or someone would connect somehow briefly to the Internet to read a few details, but those details were far and few between.”

Steward, like many in Sendai, is focused now on rebuilding. He plans to reopen the school April 11. “We want to show the spirit of Sendai and help the region of Miyagi by opening as quickly as possible, but at the same time we have to give families and teachers the chance to cool down a bit, make sure they are ready to come back. The safety of the students, too, is our main concern, and we still have three to five aftershocks every day.”

Gasoline is also a problem because the school brings in children from a wide area. “The lack of gasoline is crippling the city, since no one can move around freely and everyone has to use their gas very sparingly. Sometimes you have to wait 10 hours to get gas, and then there’s a limit.”

Steward is only too aware of the areas in Tohoku that weren’t so lucky, and his community has been affected, with relatives or friends unaccounted for. He is aware of at least four families of the school’s students whose homes and businesses were swept away or severely damaged.

Many of the foreign families surrounding the school have temporarily left Sendai, and with the devastation of Sendai Airport, one of the school’s major supporters, IBEX, is without a landing field.

“I can only hope that they will come back,” Steward said. “Our school is too small to lose such important financial supporters.”

Still, Steward remains optimistic. The day before the Koshien baseball game, gas service returned to the city, the last of the lifelines to be reinstalled. “It was fantastic, to finally be able to use hot water. Stores are open again now, and there is plenty of food.”

For Steward, the next step is ensuring the children in the area can resume their normal activities — and that was the main reason the baseball game was so important.

“People, children in Sendai, need these positive things right now, like sports, to keep them going. I respect Sendai. It’s a beautiful city, and I respect Miyagi and Japan. When we’re on the streets now and go into the stores that have reopened, there’s a real spirit, you can see it on people’s faces. They are not going to give up. They’re going to fight and they will be a hundred times better than what they were before this happened.”

Tohoku International School is in the process of creating a scholarship fund for families severely affected by the earthquake. Contributions can be made directly by contacting the school at admin@tisweb.net