Togura Elementary School no longer exists. A large mound of dirt stands where the school used to be, recognizable by a small red shrine sitting on top of the hill.
With the help of their headmaster and an earthquake-veteran teacher, Togura Elementary School students avoided the same fate as their school. When the earthquake hit the elementary school in 2011, Mr. Asokawa, the headmaster, realized that a traditional roll-call would be too slow and called out a directive to the student body to immediately begin evacuation. On the advice of Ms. Saito, a local who had experienced the 1960 Chile Earthquake and a teacher at Togura Elementary, students trekked 400m to a nearby hill instead of escaping to the school rooftop. Students and teachers clambered up the hill. As they stood there, Mr. Asokawa realized that the tsunami could reach even greater heights than he had thought possible, and told students to climb one more set of stairs to a local shrine, where they remained until rescue teams came to pick them up. Thanks to the headmaster's quick thinking and Ms. Saito's prescience, hundreds of students were saved from the tsunami that went on to devastate their school and the rest of Minamisanriku Town.
On my trip to various disaster sites around Ishinomaki and Minamisanriku Town, I ended up visiting the local shrine that served as the students' final evacuation point. There, I saw a slightly run-down building with the same sloping roof and rope-bell contraption characteristic of Japanese temple architecture. The little shrine, nestled in the middle of a grove of trees, reflected a soft Shinto animism: a reverence for the soul of nature that still pervades throughout Japanese thinking today. Although many such beliefs have been worn down with the onset of capitalistic market values, the tsunami, whose awesome power reduced metropolises to rubble, whisked people back into a world of spirituality. The arbitrary destruction wrought by the tsunami seems to point to greater natural forces, much more powerful than minimum efficient scale and elasticity of demand.
I wonder if Japan's frequent natural disasters have served to reaffirm religious, or superstitious beliefs. Japan, a country that is often heralded as being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, is only able to predict earthquakes with limited accuracy, and advise its citizens when to run. And while the government has been able to somewhat minimize the damage of the tsunami with structures such as sea walls, no-one has been able to stop them from coming altogether. The frequent wreckage caused by tsunamis, floods, and other disasters inspires a sense of intense helplessness in their victims, explaining why disaster survivors ascribe a mysterious, godly force to tsunamis. Indeed, in Minamisanriku town, many survivors look to the shrine of the top of the hill as a sacred haven that saved them from another sacred force. And that sort of makes sense. Surely the only thing that could overcome nature's overwhelming power is some form of divine protection.
Regardless of whether tsunamis are a form of natural retribution, I think there is much to be gained from incorporating the humility associated with religion and superstition into modern thinking. I believe that we can use the same reverence for nature present in animism and other similar beliefs to spur an enduring, beneficial sense of precaution in natural disaster prevention as well as in everyday economic development.
Minamisanriku has experienced earthquakes and tsunamis in the past, the most recent major event being the 1960 Chile Earthquake. I was surprised to see some Rapa Nui (Easter Island) monoliths by the middle school to commemorate the event. Ironically many of them were destroyed or washed away in 2011.
These relics were there to remind the citizens of the power of natural disasters, but despite their presence, the locals were still unprepared for the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Nor was anyone else. The Fukushima nuclear plant was not built to withstand an incredibly powerful earthquake and tsunami combination and neither was the rest of Japan. The damage wrought by the Great Earthquake was not anticipated at all by the risk management framework. And that is understandable, after all, how can you prepare for something that has never happened before? I am not blaming anyone for the devastation of 2011, but I do think the event suggests the need for greater levels of precaution.
Ms. Saito seems to have understood the need for extra precautionary measures. After experiencing the tsunami of 1960, Ms. Saito was aware of the possible dangers that could befall Togura Elementary's students, taking them far away from the school and up to the highest point she knew of. I do not know if she believed in the spirit of nature. What I do know however, is she must have believed in the power of the tsunami, a part of nature, to bring the students far away from their school and up to the little shrine.
Although many residents of disaster-stricken regions have a newfound humility, and are seeking to create better evacuation procedures, it remains to be shown whether future generations will retain the same attitude. It's one thing to experience a devastating event and prepare for future disasters, but it is an entirely different story to teach future generations to do the same thing; we won't always have a Ms. Saito to guide us. Here is where animism comes in. By teaching future generations to respect nature through enduring animistic traditions like Shintoism, or simply developing a strong cultural appreciation for nature, we can preserve the same humility that residents have found in the aftermath of the tsunami. The same humility will drive future generations to be ever-cautious of the effects of natural disasters, and push the creation of better disaster-preparation measures. On top of that, by internalizing a reverence for nature, future generations may be better equipped to engage in sustainable economic growth, and help the planet recover from years of exploitation.
There isn't much left of the area around Togura Elementary school. Raised mounds of dirt surround the area where the school used to stand, and while there is certainly construction activity, it's eerily devoid of inhabitants. Looking at the dirt dunes before me, it was hard not to respect the tsunami, which had reduced a town to a few desultory construction vehicles trying to complete a Sisyphean task.