SENDAI – Clutching a handkerchief tightly in her hand, Mika Sato nodded silently and tearfully to the others who lost their children in the 2011 tsunami when the Sendai District Court handed down its ruling Tuesday holding a kindergarten responsible for the deaths.
Sato, 38, was among the parents who sued the Hiyori kindergarten in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, over the deaths of their children, lost when their school bus was swallowed by the March 11 tsunami, then engulfed in flames when gas leaking from a nearby service station blew up.
Tragically, the bus had been dispatched from the school, which stands on high ground, to deliver the children to their homes on the coast.
The mother of 6-year-old Airi insists the kindergarten failed to live up to its responsibility to ensure the children’s safety that day. “I hope that this will be a good lesson for adults who take children under their care,” Sato said.
When Sato finally saw her daughter three days after the disaster, she could hardly recognize the child’s body. A piece of the jacket Airi was wearing that day, clinging to her shoulder, was all the evidence Sato had to identify the body.
“Her body was almost reduced to ashes,” Sato recalled in a choking voice. “It was so fragile, that I couldn’t even take her in my arms.”
Sato says Airi was a tender-hearted and thoughtful child who was always considerate of her friends. She could write hiragana and knew the days of the week in English by heart. The family had high hopes for her future.
Sato still keeps a picture of Airi’s smiling face as the wallpaper on her cellphone. In July, her younger daughter, Juri, reached the age Airi was when she died.
Sato recalls how surprised she was at the kindergarten’s poor handling of the situation after the earthquake and tsunami. “The kindergarten didn’t even search for the bodies. I couldn’t just give in to despair and sit still,” she said.
It took kindergarten officials about a month to disclose a disaster preparedness manual she had requested, she said. It revealed the bus had taken a different route from the one that kindergarten staff had shown to parents and other guardians in case of a disaster. Airi was on the bus with children who lived closer to the ocean, even though her home was in the opposite direction.
“If they had stayed at the kindergarten, they could have lived,” Sato said. “As an institution that takes care of children, they don’t show any responsibility (for their lives) in their conduct.”
Sato received many messages and inquiries from other relatives of children who died in the disaster, also questioning the conduct of educational institutions in their areas.
“Every parent wants to know what happened at that time; whether it was one single minute or one single second,” Sato said.
“I hope that no one will have to go through what we went through,” said Sato, adding that she hopes her daughter has helped cast a light on how institutions should protect children.