• Kyodo

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Families who lost loved ones in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami gathered at locations in the disaster-hit areas early Thursday to offer prayers, marking 3½ years since the disasters.

Among them were parents and relatives of the 84 students and teachers who died in the March 11, 2011, tsunami at the Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

“It reminds me of that day,” said one family member, looking at a large puddle of water on the school grounds after heavy rainfall hit the area.

The school hadn’t been considered a tsunami hazard area when the waves struck and had ironically been designated as an evacuation site.

Shinichi Sanjo, 47, lost his 9-year-old son, Kosei, and two other family members to the tsunami. He came to the school on Thursday to offer prayers at a cenotaph erected for the victims.

“These 3½ years have passed really quickly, but as time goes by, the only thing I can tell (my son) is ‘Sorry I couldn’t save you,’ ” Sanjo said. “That’s the only thing I can say to him.”

Toshiro Sato, a 51-year-old teacher at one of Miyagi Prefecture’s junior high schools, lost his 12-year-old daughter, Mizuho, to the tsunami. He spoke about his ongoing efforts to strengthen disaster prevention in schools.

“An unfortunate event took place at this place, but I want to make it the starting point,” said Sato, who is in charge of disaster prevention education at Onagawa No. 1 Junior High School in the coastal town.

Norio Shoji, 64, from Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, came to offer a prayer for the tsunami victims at Minamisanriku’s disaster prevention building in Miyagi, which took severe damage from the giant waves.

“There’s nothing left here. I feel really sorry for (the victims),” said Shoji, who lost his uncle when the tsunami inundated the city of Asahi in Chiba Prefecture.Kotai Ichikawa, a 41-year-old chief priest who comes each month to offer his prayers at the cenotaph, said: “I want to offer support to those who are in grief.”

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