Lingering Trauma in Tohoku Five Years On

—Machiko Osawa & Jeff Kingston

Five years on, the excruciating tragedy of 74 elementary students who drowned near the Okawa elementary school in the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 resonates painfully.

Recently, on a snowy January day, we prayed at the altar where visitors left fresh flowers in front of the roped off building we first visited five years ago. A path was shoveled to a more elaborate memorial to the victims, including a statue of a kneeling mother cradling a 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. This memorial is next to a steep, partly wooded slope that might have been a haven of safety 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 the story of what happened that fateful day. Shito is remarkably composed and calm in talking about the tragedy that claimed his daughter Chisato who would now be a high school teenager with a full life ahead of her. But she will never grow up, get a job or get married, never raise a family and Shito will never have any grandchildren to dote on.

Inexplicably, the teachers ignored warnings for nearly 50 minutes before the school, some four kilometers inland, was inundated by two tsunamis, 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 that 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.

Shito’s name card includes his daughter’s name right in the center. It is mind numbing to imagine what personal hells this father has gone through and will be going 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 told the 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 the Tohoku area in recorded history and the devastating tsunami in 1896 and 1933 were part of the regional lore warning against complacency. But 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 in Tohoku suffered as many school deaths as Okawa. Only one teacher survived and he later committed suicide. The surviving children said that after the powerful jolts they were told 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 until the tsunami surged over the embankment, sparking a panic. According to Shito, teachers belatedly evacuated students into the maelstrom by moving towards 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 towards 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.

Sato wants to get at the truth, but is frustrated that the town authorities and education officials are downplaying, denying and evading. At one point, officials said that fallen trees blocked the route for a hill evacuation, but later recanted. They also said teachers commenced the evacuation of the schoolyard about ten minutes before they actually did so. One major question is why the annual evacuation drills conducted on the March 2nd anniversary of the 1933 tsunami that are credited with saving lives all along the tsunami coast did not help in Okawa. Apparently, no evacuation drill was conducted there in 2011. Local authorities justify the delayed evacuation because the Miyagi Prefectural hazard map issued in 2004 declared Okawa to be safe from tsunami as it had not been inundated in either 1896 or 1933. However, Professor Kazuki Koketsu from the University of Tokyo Earthquake Research Center 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. But as in other disaster-hit towns, there are locals who favor getting rid of such grim reminders.

Many of the parents are pursuing truth and accountability in court and await a verdict, perhaps this summer, but whatever is decided there will be no closure for the broken hearted left behind in the tsunami’s wake.

Machiko Osawa is Professor of Labor Economics at Japan Women’s University.
Jeff Kingston is Professor of History and Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan. Both are contributors to Japan: The Precarious Future (NYU Press, 2015).