Teacher vows to protect students from disasters

by Yugo Hirano

Kyodo

Having lost his daughter in the quake-tsunami disaster two years ago, Toshiro Sato, a teacher in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, believes the best disaster prevention is not to forget what happened that fateful day and confront it.

“I don’t want to let any more students die at school,” said the 49-year-old Sato, who is in charge of disaster prevention education at Onagawa No. 1 Junior High School in the coastal town.

Onagawa was among the areas hit hardest by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Immediately after the catastrophe, Sato needed to first deal with his students, evacuating them away from the surging waters.

It was three days later that Sato was finally able to head to Okawa Elementary School in the city of Ishinomaki, adjacent to Onagawa, to look for his 12-year-old daughter, Mizuho.

He saw many familiar faces among the dead children covered with mud near the wrecked school building. Mizuho, his second-oldest daughter, was among them.

The school had been devastated, with 70 of its 108 students killed by the tsunami and another four still missing. More students died there than in any other school in the Tohoku region. Of its 13 teachers, 10 were killed.

Two years since the tsunami, Sato’s pain has yet to ease.

He remembers that Mizuho, who was in the sixth grade, often followed her elder sister. That day, she was found wearing her sister’s blue hand-me-down jacket.

Sato also remembers that Mizuho drew a picture of him when she was in kindergarten and showed it to her friends, explaining proudly that he was a junior high school teacher.

“She was such a thoughtful and sweet girl,” he said. “She always helped us out around the house, ironing and washing dishes.”

In April 2012, after the first anniversary, Sato was asked to take charge of disaster prevention education in collaboration with local residents and municipalities. He was hesitant but eventually accepted the offer.

Two months later, Sato held a surprise evacuation drill at his junior high school. He gave students instructions with a loudspeaker instead of using the school’s broadcasting system in anticipation that he would not be able to use it due to a power outage.

“I wouldn’t expect a disaster to occur in the way we anticipate, but it’s the school’s responsibility to protect the lives of its students,” he said. “Recently, I began thinking of parents who send their sons and daughters off to school (believing the school is a safe place).”

Last month, he told all of the roughly 220 students at his school to come up with one word before or after “3.11.”

Kei Kimura, a 14-year-old, wrote, “3.11 — my starting point.” Kimura explained, “Because it was the day I learned that what I had taken for granted is very precious.”

“We have to confront March 11,” Sato said. “We can sort our feelings out when we express them in words.”

As for the tragedy at Okawa Elementary School, the education ministry and local officials have launched a third-party disaster inspection committee to find out why so many lives were lost there and to resolve other questions raised by the victims’ families.

For the last two years, the inspection had been carried out mainly by the city’s board of education, but the families were dissatisfied with its explanations and distrustful of it. They asked for a third-party committee to step in.

The committee, made up of experts in areas such as tsunami and other disasters and also a relative of someone who died in the 1985 Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash, will look into whether the school had taken appropriate safety measures and how it tried to evacuate the students on March 11.

Some families of victims said they hope the committee will shed light on the truth behind the tragedy, while others voiced concern it won’t listen to their opinions or produce impartial conclusions.

Okawa Elementary School is currently operating at another school facility in the city with 21 students and 14 teachers.