On Thursday, June 21st I had the opportunity to accompany the Disaster Prevention & Education Bureau on a trip to the Minami Sanriku and Kesen'numa, two areas of Miyagi Prefecture devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Our first stop was to the town of Ishinomaki, cite of the former Okawa Elementary School. The March 11, 2011 earthquake hit at 2:46pm JST on a Friday, meaning most children experienced the disaster and evacuation at school. In a testament to the preparation and dedication of Japanese educators, every elementary, junior high, and high school managed to swiftly and adeptly move students to safety with only a single exception. The exception was Okawa, where 74 out of the 78 students and 10 of the 13 teachers attending school that day were swept away by the tsunami to their deaths.

As we drove through the countryside to Okawa, located on the bank of a river two miles from the ocean, it did not strike me as a place especially vulnerable to tsunamis. The path to the school follows that of the massive, meandering Kitakami river, but the sea remains hidden behind low hills. When we cross over a hulking steel bridge to finally arrive at the site, however, any doubts about tsunami danger vanish. The once handsome school building is an empty shell, the outer walls of the two-story building have been completely ripped away leaving little more than concrete pillars and empty door frames. One end of the steel-reinforced concrete bridge which had once connected to the 2nd floor of the gymnasium with the main school building now lies on the ground, literally twisted off by the force of the tsunami. The deadly surge had not come from the direction of the sea as the crow flies, but from the Kitakami river, where sea water and debris surged up from the coast and struck the school head on. Several bouquets of fresh flowers have been placed in front of a memorial to the dead, a solemn cenotaph and a bronze statue of a child angel.

What broke my heart, however, was the presence of a large forested hill directly behind the school. We walked about 200 paces from the schoolyard up to a sign marking the point where the tsunami subsided. It is obvious that within five minutes even the smallest of schoolchildren could have reached this point. Why did the students not flee here for safety?

Takeda-san, my guide and the head of the bureau, replied that some of the students had suggested evacuating to the hill but were silenced by their teachers. Two boys had disobeyed authority and fled up the hill, ultimately saving their lives. The remaining students had obediently followed their teachers toward the river and to their untimely deaths. The tsunami struck 50 minutes after the earthquake and 20 minutes after the Meteorological Agency issued warnings that a tsunami in at a height of 10 meters was quickly approaching the school. Yet the Okawa Elementary School teachers made the worst possible decision imaginable: they dithered until minutes before the fatal wave hit, then shepherded their students directly into its deadly embrace.

What led to the gross misjudgment on the part of school leaders? As with most institutions, Japanese schools' responses to disaster events are governed by manual based on a national template which is then tailored to fit the needs of individual schools. At Okawa, however, school leaders failed to adjust the generic wording of the template, which called for evacuation to a park or other vacant land in case of a tsunami. In the direct aftermath of one of the most violent earthquakes in Japan's history, school leadership decided to evacuate the children to a parking strip next to the river and toward the oncoming destruction to become a tragic lesson the dangers of complacency.

There is a silver lining to this calamity: in 2014 families of the children successfully sued the school and local officials for negligence in local courts. In April of this year, the Sendai high court ruled in favor of the families, ordering the city and prefecture to pay about 1.4 billion yen, or $13 million, in damages. The high court said the school should have considered the possibility of a tsunami and worked out a detailed emergency evacuation plan and placed blame on municipal board of education for failing to provide appropriate instructions to the school.

This lawsuit is important because it puts increased pressure on schools and other institutions to take serious responsibility disaster prevention. One can hardly blame educators for panicking in the aftermath of a major catastrophic event, but there is no excuse for neglecting to prepare an effective emergency plan beforehand. Although the city of Ishinomaki denies any culpability and vows to take the case to the supreme court, the ruling has prompted schools around Japan to reconsider their own emergency plans. No amount of money can ever compensate for lives lost, but if the threat of compensation will motivate institutions to place more value on preserving human life, then may the courts award victims' families every penny they ask for.

About the Author

Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University. This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo. As a second‐year student in the Regional Studies ‐ East Asia program I study gender, material culture and consumption, social stratification and popular culture, globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society. I received my undergraduate education at New York University (’10), where I studied East Asian language, literature, art history, philosophy, history, and film theory. My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing, Princeton University in Ishikawa, and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies.
After graduating from NYU, I spent a year as a translator, a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter‐University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama, and three years as an account manager at Rakuten, a Japanese firm in Tokyo. At Rakuten, I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands.
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return.