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Pupils excelled on 3/11 but life since a struggle

Traumatized students still adjusting to postdisaster life

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

Shin Saito, a junior high school teacher in Kamaishi, still has nightmares about the day he and his students had to desperately dash to higher ground as tsunami crashed into Iwate’s coast, barely managing to escape the terrifying waves.

“My nightmares start with me standing in the school grounds and the earthquake striking. During my dreams, somehow I know that they’re dreams but I still have to run and escape,” said Saito, a 39-year-old English teacher at Kamaishi East Junior High School.

“I’m forced to relive the whole experience vividly, even things like the cold weather and the hunger I felt afterward, and how petrified I was. . . . So when I wake up, I’m exhausted,” he told The Japan Times in late February.

“I worry that many of our students may be having similar experiences,” confided Saito, who is in charge of student affairs at the school.

Gigantic tsunami engulfed the school just 30 minutes after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Iwate Prefecture, swamping its grounds at the mouth of the Unosumai River in Otsuchi Bay.

But the school’s 212 students already had fled to higher ground by the time they struck, realizing they couldn’t afford to wait for their teachers to decide what to do. Thanks to their exodus soon after the ground stopped shaking, they escaped being swallowed by the waves and they also saved the lives of their teachers and about 350 pupils and their instructors at the neighboring Unosumai Elementary School, who all followed their lead. The Japan Times reported their story June 4.

The swift action of Kamaishi East’s students and the number of people they saved gave hope to the Unosumai district, one of the worst-hit areas of Kamaishi. About 1,150 of Kamaishi’s residents perished last March 11.

The initiative displayed by the students also encouraged local educators, who have worked on disaster prevention programs focused on tsunami in the past few years.

When interviewed, however, Saito observed that while it doesn’t show on the surface, one year isn’t enough time for the students and teachers — including himself — to move on from their terrifying life or death ordeal.

Even so, third-year students Aki Kawasaki, Kana Sasaki and Fumiya Akasaka, all 15, expressed their determination to support and rebuild their shattered community, to turn it into a safer and better place to live.

“Being a disaster victim myself, I could relate to the students and offer help, but I’ve received a lot of support from them, too,” said Saito, who like nearly 70 percent of the school’s students saw his house swept away by tsunami.

As school is an integral part of students’ everyday life, Kamaishi East’s teachers worked to return the school to normal — as much as possible — after March 11, he said.

But their new “normality” was far from easy.

Kamaishi East students had to relocate and start sharing classrooms at Kamaishi Junior High School, resulting in about 50 first-year students being crammed into a single classroom and 60 second-year students jammed into another. The roughly 70 third-year students had it marginally easier, sharing two classrooms.

On top of the overcrowding, students said they were initially worried about falling behind academically because the school year started nearly a month later than scheduled.

And though they were promised a new temporary school building by the end of last year, construction has yet to be completed.

“What I told the students this year was: ‘Let’s not be beaten by the disasters. We don’t have to win, but let’s not give in,’ ” Saito said.

Sasaki and Akasaka, the third-year students, were among those whose homes were washed away by the tsunami. One of the families is renting an apartment, while the other is living in temporary housing.

But not all their classmates stayed in Kamaishi — six had to leave the school because their parents moved out of the city in search of work, they said.

Among those who stayed, their cramped new quarters and lack of privacy at home became common topics of conversations, they said.

“I think everybody has a lot of stress inside. And because we don’t have a place to release it, sometimes we ‘overdo’ things at school,” Akasaka said.

For example, he said, he and many other boys in his grade often played soccer in their classrooms and the school’s hallways, where such games are strictly prohibited, when they were left unsupervised.

At the start of the school year, students feared their annual school events would be canceled, including group trips, but thanks to the teachers’ efforts some events went ahead. Third-year students, whose April trip to Tokyo had to be canceled, instead traveled to Osaka in early October, at the invitation of the city.

Later that month, students took part in volunteering activities, including visiting day care centers for the elderly in their local district, Unosumai, where they sang songs and even provided shoulder rubs.

For some of the students, it was the first time they had returned to Unosumai since the natural calamities.

The parking lot at one of the day care centers had been the first evacuation site for the students on March 11, but as the waves swept farther and farther inland they kept moving to higher ground.

“I realized for the first time that if we had stayed there, we could have died,” Akasaka said.

At the school’s November festival, third-year students gave a presentation about the day of the catastrophe, describing their escape and discussing the school’s disaster-prevention programs.

Sasaki, Akasaka and Kawasaki all said they believe it is important to share their experiences with as many people as possible. Kawasaki even traveled to Tokyo and Nagoya as one of Kamaishi East’s student representatives, and gave a speech on stage.

The abandoned Kamaishi East school building has not been touched since the day of the disasters, and now lies surrounded by huge piles of debris after the grounds were turned into a temporary storage site.

All that remains of the district, meanwhile, is a vast and virtually empty field, with even the few structures left standing scheduled for demolition.

“I used to despise the sight of debris because it reminded me of the day (of the tsunami). But watching the remaining buildings being torn down one after another, I wonder what’s going to happen in the future,” Sasaki said.

The tsunami spared Kawasaki’s home in a neighborhood of Unosumai, with the water only seeping into the first floor and damaging a few tatami. Her family still lives in the house, which has allowed her to observe the ongoing changes to the local landscape.

“As the debris is cleared away and the remaining houses are torn down, I’m starting to forget what our town used to look like,” Kawasaki said. “And I hate that I’m starting to get used to the destroyed town.”

Kawasaki, however, expressed more than just negative feelings about the changed scenery.

“When I see the new landscape, I try to think of the positive things that happened,” she said.

“There were so many things that I was able to experience because of the tsunami, like sharing our experience with so many people. I also met a lot of people who really cared about us, and I want to value such encounters.”

The students are aware that Kamaishi municipal authorities may relocate some of the city’s devastated communities to higher ground, including Unosumai, and said they are wondering what their possible new town would look like.

“I’ve always thought that Kamaishi has beautiful nature, surrounded by the sea and mountains,” Sasaki said.

“I now know that the ocean can be dangerous, but I hope Unosumai will be safer than before and that more tourists will come back to (the local) Nebama beach, so the area can become lively again,” she said.

Most third-year students took their high school entrance exams Friday, including Sasaki and Kawasaki. As for Akasaka, his three straight first prizes at the annual Iwate Prefectural karate tournament already have won him a high school place.

Kamaishi East Junior High School will hold its graduation ceremony next Thursday, and the entrance exam results will be announced the following day. If Sasaki and Kawasaki also are accepted at Kamaishi High School, they, Akasaka and many of their friends will continue to be classmates.

Akasaka, who is determined to realize his childhood dream of becoming a police officer, said he wants to help rebuild Unosumai.

“It’s not possible to return everything to how it used to be, but I want to be part of creating a new Unosumai, where young people will gather,” he said.

But Kamaishi East teacher Saito said many people in tsunami-stricken areas are still recovering from the devastation, adding that efforts to restore their lives and livelihoods haven’t even begun.

Saito hopes that adults will consider how to better support students who survived the tsunami, to help them along the path to recovery.

“I just don’t want the students to have to endure a life deprived of opportunities, just because they’ve been damaged by the disaster,” he said.

“So I hope society will support and help them achieve their goals. What happens from that point on is up to each student, but I believe they will contribute to society by using the strength they displayed the day they survived the tsunami.”