• Kyodo

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Ryo Shibuya, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the town of Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, lost his 2-year-old son Ayumu in the 2011 tsunami.

The boy was one of three children from a public nursery school who died when the car they were fleeing in was engulfed by the huge waves.

Shibuya, 30, said his son’s voice, encouraging him to say “good luck at work” — the words he had just learned — stays with him. But he is trying to move on with his life as he believes “Ayumu is happy to see his dad strong and always smiling.”

He is among those who tried to sue the Yamamoto Municipal Government over the children’ deaths. Their suit was turned down Monday.

They argued that the nursery school responded inappropriately to the emergency by keeping the children in its playground despite the danger of tsunami. The school finally put the children in cars when the monstrous wall of water was approaching, but it was too late for the three in the vehicle that was engulfed.

During the emergency, Shibuya said, he was assured by school’s principal — who had evacuated to the town office — that his son was OK.

“Ayumu has been evacuated to a private house on its second floor together with the nursery teachers, so he’s safe,” he said he was told.

But when Shibuya went to check on his son the following day, Ayumu wasn’t there. He pressed for an explanation, but the principal would only say: “Please try to understand what the teachers feel” before walking away.

Amid the confusion and turmoil following the disaster, Shibuya searched for his son, cutting through the rubble with a chain saw.

While removing crumpled roofs from collapsed houses, at every turn he encountered the harrowing sight of bodies piled on top of one another.

On the 37th day after the disaster, Shibuya received a phone call from a member of a Self-Defense Forces search and rescue team telling him that a corpse was found matching Ayumu’s description.

Arriving at the staging area near the nursery school, his eyes were immediately drawn to the body of a 90-cm-tall child lying next to a pile of debris.

He saw a tag with his son’s name — “Ayumu Shibuya” — on a jumper covering the body. “It’s got to be wrong,” he thought to himself. That sight still lingers in his memory, he said.

Shibuya and his wife, both of whom work, enrolled their son in the nursery school shortly after his birth. Shibuya said the family had been on familiar terms with the teachers and the principal and they always appreciated the care they provided.

However, no one from the school showed up for a town meeting held by the municipal government to brief residents on the situation after the disaster. Instead, the parents’ questions had to be answered by municipal officials who were unfamiliar with the events at the school.

Dissatisfied with the poor official response, Shibuya, together with another family who had lost their 6-year-old son in the disaster, decided to sue the town.

“None of us wanted to bring the case to court,” Shibuya said. “We only wanted the town government to confront the bereaved families with sincerity. We would have been satisfied if only they had offered one incense stick to pay their respects to Ayumu and apologized.”

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