As the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami approaches, the tragic story of 74 schoolchildren and 10 teachers who drowned near Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, continues to resonate painfully.
On a cold day last month, I prayed at an altar in front of the roped-off and damaged school building I first visited five years ago. A path now leads to a more elaborate memorial to Okawa’s victims, which includes a statue of a kneeling mother cradling her child wrapped in a purplish shawl and festooned with a garland of origami cranes. She wears a woolen hat on her bowed head, eyes closed with a seraphic smile; the word komamori (protecting a child) is engraved on its base. This memorial is next to a steep, partly wooded slope that might have provided a safe haven for the children.
Takahiro Shito, one of the bereaved fathers, called me over to his car where he was standing in the frigid winds after a snowfall had blanketed the coastline, swathing the muddy work of reconstruction in shimmering white. Only four of the 78 students present at the Okawa Elementary school survived the tsunami and, according to Shito, only the kids who disobeyed their teachers’ instructions and scrambled up that hill lived to tell their story of what happened on that fateful day. Shito is remarkably composed and calm in talking about the tragedy that befell his daughter Chisato, who would have now been a high school teenager with a full life ahead of her. But she will never grow up, get a job, get married and raise a family, and he will never have any grandchildren to dote on.
Shito is part of a civil lawsuit involving 23 families who lost children at Okawa Elementary School on March 11. They are seeking ¥2.3 billion in damages from the city and prefectural governments.
Shito says that, inexplicably, teachers ignored warnings for nearly 50 minutes before the school, some 4 kilometers inland, was inundated by two tsunami waves: one from the ocean that powerfully plowed over fields and swept away a housing complex adjacent to the school, and another wave that sped down the Kitakami River, which swelled relentlessly over the embankment as accumulated debris caught in the nearby bridge became a dam blocking the onrushing waters, diverting them to where the students waited.
His name card includes his daughter’s name right in the center of it. It’s mind-numbing to imagine what personal hells this father has gone through and will continue to go through; the loss of his child is a lifelong sentence from which there will never be parole or reprieve. He is a member of a bereaved parents’ group that seeks answers and accountability. Shito gave me a pamphlet he prepared that includes a detailed analysis of what went wrong and a searing indictment of what he believes is an ongoing cover-up as the official version of events flip flops and the surviving students’ testimony is ignored.
When the powerful magnitude-9 earthquake struck off the coast of Tohoku there were 108 students in attendance, but parents came by to pick up 30 of them. These parents reportedly told teachers to evacuate, suggesting they use a bus parked at the school. There were also sound trucks circulating with warnings to evacuate. This was the most powerful earthquake to strike Japan in recorded history, but the Tohoku region had experienced tsunami before in 1896 and 1933. These events were part of regional lore that should have warned against complacency. However, the district of Okawa escaped significant harm in those disasters, spawning a tragically misplaced belief that it might be a safe place to remain. Visiting the site is to wonder why it was located in the floodplain of two rivers, one only 60 meters away, since rivers are “highways” for incoming tsunami.
Nobody had anticipated such a powerful quake, but nowhere suffered as many student deaths as Okawa Elementary School. Only one teacher survived and he later committed suicide. The surviving children have reportedly told people that after the powerful jolts they were instructed to gather in the schoolyard. The teachers appeared uncertain about what to do, some say there were heated exchanges, but when students suggested that they escape up the adjacent hill, they were scolded. So almost everyone remained in the schoolyard for nearly 50 minutes until the tsunami surged over the embankment, sparking a panic. According to Shito, teachers belatedly evacuated students into the maelstrom by moving toward the bridge where the river was already sweeping inland. Why, Shito asks, would they wait to evacuate until it was too late? Why would they head toward the evident dangers near the bridge when they had access to high ground away from danger? Given the clear warnings, plenty of time to evacuate and safe ground at hand, why did all those children have to die? For the parents, these are questions that will never go away.
Shito wants to get at the truth, but told me that he has been frustrated by the authorities who are downplaying, denying and evading. Officials said that fallen trees blocked the route for a hill evacuation (but subsequently appeared to recant that fact) and that the evacuation of the schoolyard commenced 10 minutes earlier than what other reports suggest. Another major question surrounds evacuation drills conducted annually on March 2, the anniversary of the 1933 tsunami. These drills were credited with saving lives along the Tohoku coast, but didn’t help at Okawa Elementary School. Shito adds that he was told no such drill was conducted at the school in 2011.
Local authorities have also said the delayed evacuation occurred because the Miyagi Prefectural hazard map, which was issued in 2004, declared Okawa Elementary School to be in a safe zone from tsunami as it had not been inundated in either 1896 or 1933. However, professor Kazuki Koketsu from the University of Tokyo Earthquake Research Institute wrote in the May 2014 issue of Facta that blaming the hazard map is a cop out and teachers should have improvised an evacuation as many other teachers along the pulverized coastline did because of the unprecedented intensity of the quake.
The fate of the shattered school is undecided. Shito and many other locals want to preserve the building to honor the “little souls” that remain; the bereaved even cleared the pool of debris and filled it with water for them. They want to remind everyone of the folly of poor emergency disaster management so other students will learn what they need to know; Miyagi Prefecture schools have already organized educational trips to the site where the son of one of the drowned teachers volunteers as a guide. But as in other disaster-hit towns, there are locals who favor getting rid of such grim reminders. I think demolishing the school ruins would compound a tragedy that deserves proper commemoration.
The parents of children who attended Okawa Elementary School are awaiting a court verdict that might come this summer, but whatever is decided there will be no healing the broken hearts left in the tsunami’s wake.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.