Rain was dribbling, then pouring down onto the windshield as we made our way up to perhaps the most infamous preservation site in Japan: Okawa Elementary School. Thirty-four children and one teacher survived the tsunami. Seventy-four and ten perished.*
We visited around ten different disaster sites on that day, and Okawa Elementary was the only one where it rained while we observed the remains. I am not religious, nor do I consider myself particularly superstitious, but the rain that pattered off my umbrella seemed to mark something more momentous than a mere weather front. In Japanese they call it 涙雨 (namida-ame), literally tear-rain. The tears of the departed fell from the sky as I walked along their deathbeds.
Okawa Elementary School has a tragic history. The earthquake hit 50 minutes before the tsunami arrived. 50 minutes. But the calls for evacuation came too late after everyone had gathered into the schoolyard. Even if they did not expect the tsunami to reach the school, the teachers knew that the tsunami had arrived six minutes before it devoured them. After deliberating for too long about how to evacuate, school officials decided to escape to a nearby hill and cross the bridge to a safe area on the other side. While they were attempting to cross the bridge, the waves caught up with them, causing one of the greatest tragedies of the 2011. No other school in Japan lost children under their watch.
If the teachers had decided to take the children up a nearby hill, probably, everyone would have survived. If the teachers had gathered the students and made the same decision faster, most everyone would have survived. If the school had gone through strict disaster drills to prepare for the worst, most would have survived. The what-ifs have buzzed around the minds of the local community, finally culminating in a lawsuit by filed by grief-ridden parents.
It's a lawsuit that makes a lot of people uneasy. How are we meant to properly grieve the loss of the students if their lives are being equated to financial compensation? Is it right to play the blame game when we should really be working together to try and rebuild a strong community? Despite these very valid concerns, I think that the lawsuit is perfectly justified.
The lawsuit is more symbolic than it is about the money. It's about making the parents' voices heard in a society which rarely sues. Yes, the parents are seeking monetary relief from the government, but that could never truly account for the death of a child. The prevailing lawsuit, which is still going on now, is not a way of gaining financial compensation as much as it is a way of reminding the rest of the country that the effects of the Okawa Elementary School tragedy continue today. The parents are not blaming the local government for the death of their children, they are forcing it to take responsibility for the incredible damage and incompetency of the teachers who were at school on that day.
Before 2011, the Okawa Elementary School was not marked on a tsunami map. As the architect of the school said in an interview with the Kahoku Shimpo, the building was not built to withstand a tsunami. The no doubt stylish windows and wide corridors that contributed to the modern aesthetic of the building did nothing for the children when the waves came through.
From what I gather from reading articles and talking to people who covered the event at the Kahoku Shimpo, no-one truly believed that the tsunami would come. Precedent said that the tsunami would not reach the school, so why should it? This kind of thinking has caused and continued to cause numerous catastrophes. No-one believed that the housing bubble would pop, so banks kept on doling out baseless securities, leading to a disastrous market crash. No-one believes the stories of rape victims, leaving thousands of predators unpunished. No-one believes that climate change will have real, tangible effects in the years to come and that we are not going to be able to stop them without significant reform.
In my eyes, the Okawa Elementary School tragedy was caused primarily by the same complacency that has plagued humans for thousands of years. It's hard to take charge of one's fate and understand that change is necessary. And it's hard to know how to deal with deviations from the status quo. But it must be done, and we must learn to do it to prevent disaster.
As I walked back to the car, I was struck by the scene that unfolded in front of me. Small trucks lined up on the side of the river while the bridge stretched out into the mist. The rain had stopped, and puddles reflecting the grey sky sat steadily on the darker grey parking lot gravel. The silent calm that followed the rain seemed to suggest an uncertain future, full of possibility.
*This statistic includes those who are missing.