The March 11, 2011 earthquake hit at 2:46pm JST on a Friday, meaning most children experienced the disaster and evacuation at school. With only a single exception, every elementary, junior high, and high school managed to swiftly and adeptly move students to safety. On July 13 I had the chance to visit the remains of Nakahama and Arahama Elementary, two schools struck by the tsunami where all attending students survived.

Nakahama Elementary was a handsome, two-story building built several hundred meters from ocean in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture. Yamamoto is a town of around 12,000 people a 45 minute-drive south of Sendai known for the temperate climate and delicious strawberries, apples, and surf clams. Just minutes after experiencing the most powerful earthquake in the history of Japan, teachers at Nakahama Elementary received warning that a massive tsunami would reach the school in 10 minutes. The primary designated disaster evacuation site was the single-story gymnasium, and the secondary site a junior high school located 1.5 kilometers inland. The gymnasium would offer little protection from the tsunami, and there was no way the youngest children could walk 1.5 kilometers in time.

In a stunning exercise of wise decision-making under pressure, the school principal abandoned the original evacuation plan and directed all the students to the highest point in the building - a small storage space directly under the roof. Minutes later the school was struck by the 10 meter (32.8 ft) high tsunami which completely eviscerated the first and second floors. Stranded in a sea of raging water and debris, a total of 90 students, teachers, guardians, and community members spent the night in the tiny attic. The next day members of the Self-Defense Force successfully moved every single survivor to safety. Residents of Yamamoto elected to leave the building standing as a memorial to the survivors and reminder of a tsunami’s devastating force.

A similar story is told at Arahama Elementary, a four-story school located 10 kilometers east of Sendai’s city center and 700 meters from the ocean. Before the disaster struck, Principal Kawamura, considering the school’s proximity to the ocean, determined that in the case of a major earthquake the best course of action would be for students to flee immediately to the roof rather than first gathering in the school yard. The school had conducted drills accordingly, and within minutes after the earthquake all students had safely evacuated to the 4th floor.

However, the evacuation was far from over. As Arahama Elementary was designated as an evacuation spot for neighborhood residents, in the aftermath of the earthquake hundreds of community members made their way to the schoolyard. Arahama teachers designated classrooms for each neighborhood association on the 3rd floor where local leaders managed members of their local communities. I was astonished at the incredible efficiency of the evacuation and was impressed to learn that the school had conducted joint drills with the community long before the disaster struck.

The tsunami struck Arahama Elementary School 70 minutes after the earthquake, sweeping away the first floor and damaging the second. 71 school children, 233 community members, and 16 educators watched from the roof and windows as the dark water overwhelmed the community and washed away their homes, shops, fields, friends, and family members. Arakawa Elementary School was the only building in the region to withstand the tsunami. By the next day all 320 people were safely evacuated.

The successful evacuations at Nakahama and Arahama were not miraculous. They were the result of proper preparation and swift, effective decision making by seasoned leaders. The architectural integrity of the of the schools also played a key role - public schools are built to withstand strong earthquakes as well as provide shelter in the aftermath. I found it ironic that Arahama Elementary, the drab, conventionally designed 4-story structure, became a bastion of hope and strength during the disaster, whereas the sleek, modern, 2-story Okawa Elementary, where 74 out of the 78 attending students perished, was absolutely decimated.

Although advanced planning and astute judgement calls saved over 400 precious lives, those community members who not at school were far less fortunate - over 600 people in Yamamoto and 900 people in Sendai were swept away to their deaths. In a video interview Arahama Elementary Principal Kawamura describes a terrible burden of guilt at having let one student go home with a parent, never to be seen again. A neighborhood association chairman speaks of similar regrets in his failure to convince an elderly couple to evacuate. The remains of Nakahama and Arahama Elementary stand as testaments to the value of proper planning and strong leadership, and also remind us of the work which lies ahead of us.

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.