On July 23, I visited Ishinomaki to talk with Mika Satou, a mother who lost her daughter, Airi (age 6 at the time) in the 2011 disaster. What is most tragic about Airi’s death?and what plagues Mrs. Satou to this day?is that her death was completely preventable. A student at Hiyori Kindergarten, which was located in the mountains, Airi did not die in the tsunami.
A bus that was driving her, four other children, and the bus driver’s wife was swept away by the tsunami. The children, ages 4-6, were trapped for an entire day, calling for help for 10 continuous hours, and perished when a nearby oil fire incinerated the bus. Unfortunately, not only were the deaths of those children preventable, there were several missed opportunities for the children to have been saved.
The nearby Kadonowaki Elementary School met a similar fate-it burned when a house on fire swept away by the tsunami crashed into it-and yet all of the students at that school were saved. We talked with Mrs. Satou at the 3.11 Memorial Minatohama Tsunagu-kan (つなぐ館, connection house).
Hiyori Kindergarten is located in the mountains. It was judged to be safe from the tsunami.
Despite this, the kindergarten still decided to send its children home normally. Usually, there are three buses that leave the kindergarten to take children home. One passes for children by the ocean, and another goes for children who live inland. Their largest bus has a maximum capacity of 22. On March 11th, there were only 12 children who needed to go home: seven who lived on the coast and five who lived inland. The Satous live inland, meaning that Airi normally would have ridden a different bus. That day, instead of putting the children on separate buses, they put all 12 children on one bus?one going towards the coast.
Even worse is that the school should have known not to send the children home at all. The earthquake happened at 2:46 pm on March 11th. Yet the bus left the school at 2:51, after the earthquake happened. Near the school are speakers for public announcements. These speakers specifically warned that a tsunami may come and to avoid going near the coast, although staff from the kindergarten claimed that they could not hear these announcements. Even though this may have been the case, Hiyori kindergarten was specifically advertised as “a place you can see the ocean from”, meaning that the staff should have been able to take appropriate measures.
There was a huge opportunity to save the children after the bus left. After dropping off seven children who lived in the Kadonowaki area, the bus parked at Kadonowaki Elementary School. While the bus was parked at Kadonowaki, the driver received a phone call to return back to the school instead of dropping the remaining five children off.
Two teachers from the kindergarten had been on the bus prior to its stop. They got off and walked back. There was, at the time, a staircase going from Kadonowaki into the mountains. It takes at most a couple of minutes to get into the mountains, even for children, meaning it would have been easy to evacuate the children from the bus. When those two teachers were asked after the disaster why they did not have the kids get off at Kadonowaki Elementary and flee into the mountains, their response was “we thought the bus was fast and safe.”
“If that’s the case, then why didn’t you ride it?” Mrs. Satou comments when she tells us this. These teachers were the last people other than the bus driver to ever see the children before they died. The teachers said they did not know the children were on the bus when they left. They did not take a head count of the children when they went back to the kindergarten and assumed the bus driver would take them to safety.
The bus then went to return to the kindergarten. In order to this normally, you have to travel down a one-way road from Kadonowaki Elementary School. Despite it being a one-way road normally, many residents who had heard that a tsunami was coming broke traffic rules and drove towards the mountains. These people survived. The bus became stuck in traffic heading back towards the kindergarten.
Mrs. Satou is puzzled by the fact that they could have simply told the bus driver to abandon the bus and return when he parked in front of Kadonowaki Elementary School. “Surely they could feel the atmosphere,” Mrs. Satou says. Around them, evacuating locals even told them to climb into the mountains.
One mother was able to save her and her sisters’ children who were on that bus. When she arrived to pick up the children, the kindergarten informed her that the bus had already left towards the coast. This mother expected the kids to flee when the bus stopped at Kadonowaki. She looked for the children and got them when the bus was stuck in traffic. She unfortunately also did not look back to see what happened to the other children, rushing to the mountains before the tsunami came.
The bus had almost completed its circuit back to the school when it was swept away and buried under wreckage. The kids screamed for help for several hours. None of the local residents, however, had children, and thus did not know why they heard the sounds of children. One elderly woman’s residence was even located right above where the bus had been trapped. Had emergency services been called, it is possible they could have moved the debris and saved the children. Airi seems to have attempted to escape. She, and the two other children, were found embracing each other outside of the bus.
Mrs. Satou initially wasn’t even worried that anything would happen to her daughter. Instead, she was worried about her husband, who worked at Nippon Paper Industries’ Ishinomaki factory, located near the ocean. Even though some other companies prioritized profit over human life, the company evacuated early. These actions resulted in the workers’ lives being saved. After leaving, Mr. Satou went from work to pick up his daughter. Even at that stage, the kindergarten attempted to hide information from the families. Mr. Satou was told that they “hadn’t heard anything,” and that the children had been swallowed by the tsunami.
What they didn’t tell him was that the bus driver had escaped the bus, returned to the school, and was subsequently sent home. When Mr. Satou returned to the school again at 7:00, the failed to inform him about what had happened. Furthermore, despite having contact with the bus driver, the staff sent him home without asking him anything. The driver could have helped point out the location of the bus, allowing for services to remove wreckage and save the kids.
Thinking that they had had no contact with the bus, Mr. Satou guessed that, if they had survived, they would have fled into the mountains. He searched all night. Mr. and Mrs. Satou question why the kindergarten told them that they had not heard anything and the children had been swallowed up when this was not necessarily the case. The school later claimed that they thought he was an outsider…despite Mr. Satou wearing a work uniform with his name on it and specifically telling them he was there to pick up his daughter Airi.
Mrs. Satou finds this deception especially frustrating because of how much time there was for the children to be saved. Had the kindergarten staff been honest with Mr. Satou, he may have been able to use his factory connections and resources to search for the children. Moreover, residents heard sounds of children’s voices at midnight, when the fire did not occur until 2:00 in the morning, meaning that emergency services could have had two whole hours to search for and find the children. She believes that they had deliberately hid the fact that the children survived to avoid responsibility. “Adults are supposed to feel like they have to save children.
“If they had just done what you would expect someone to do in these situations, the children probably would have been saved. It doesn’t make any sense to me why they took the children from a safe place to somewhere less safe. Everyone I’ve talked to is the same?they don’t understand why the children were even sent home.”
In spite of this tragedy, Mrs. Satou still finds pride in Airi. From the reports of the two children who were picked up while in traffic, as well as a video of the bus taken by someone near the kindergarten, Airi worked to keep all of the other children calm. She was reportedly the only child who did not cry, even though she was almost certainly scared as well. The surviving children’s mothers believe that it was due to Airi’s encouragement that they were saved.
While Mrs. Satou tells us her story, she shows us the Tsunagu-kan. Inside, alongside pictures of the disaster standard for memorial museums is a diorama of pre-2011 Ishinomaki. Behind it are Airi’s shoes and melted crayons. Mrs. Satou says that Airi’s body was so badly burned that it was impossible to tell from appearance that it was her. Mrs. Satou identified Airi by her shoes, backpack, and by height. Airi’s body was missing her arms from the elbow down, and her skin was burned off in several places such that organs were exposed.
Airi’s shoes on display are so fragile that they are kept covered with a cloth most of the time. Continued exposure to light could be enough to destroy them. Airi’s body was too fragile for Mrs. Satou to hold. “I wanted to hug her one last time, but I was told that she might shatter if I did,” she says. Airi’s body was found embracing two other children?one boy and one girl. It is theorized they must have been holding each other when the fire started. Mrs. Satou believes at least those three could have been saved.
“I wonder how painful it must have been. I wonder how scared they must have been. I still think about it, even today. I can’t imagine the fear they must have felt. I think they couldn’t fully grasp the situation, but I’m sure they knew they needed help.”
Mrs. Satou sued the holding company of the kindergarten, along with the parents of four of the five children who lost their lives. I ask Mrs. Satou if the lawsuit brought her any peace of mind. Unfortunately, she answers that it has brought almost nothing. While she and the other parents who sued won the first round lawsuit, they ultimately reached a settlement.
Mrs. Satou tells me that the reason she initiated the lawsuit in the first place was merely because she wanted the truth behind the incident. The “answers” she got consisted mostly of “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember”. Part of the conditions for the settlement were, in addition to payout, for the staff of the kindergarten to issue a formal apology to the parents who lost children. The lawsuit was settled in 2013, and no apology has been given to this day. One of the other parents even wrote a letter to the school asking about the status of the apology. The letter was sent back with no reply.
One day, Mrs. Satou coincidentally happened to run into the principal of Hiyori kindergarten. She asked him if he ever intended to give an apology. He did not even attempt to hide his intentions, bluntly asking her, “Isn’t it over already?” He had seemingly no compassion. He then told her that they died young, so it shouldn’t be a big deal, that he did not intend to apologize ever, and that he only agreed to do so to settle the lawsuit. “I had no words…it took all of my willpower for me not to hit him,” she comments. He said that he went to a local temple to pray for the children, and simply left after that with naught but a “farewell.” “Is he even human? ‘I pray for them’-how am I supposed to know that?” She says.
Moreover, the reputation of the parents has been ruined. “People probably think that the apology was already delivered, and think that we were just doing it to get money, but it’s actually the opposite. I would pay any amount of money if I could get my child back…I hate the idea you can equate money to the value of a child’s life.” Mrs. Satou says. She, who has continually appeared in news stories covering the incident, also adds, “I wouldn’t appear in news media if I had just done it for the money…It would have been one thing if they had been honest from the beginning, and apologized and took responsibility for what happened.”
However, all is not gloomy. Mrs. Satou’s younger daughter, Juri, now age 12, wants to become an announcer. This was her late sister’s dream as well. Numerous reporters from the Kahoku Shimpo amongst other papers have also continued to support the Satou family. Juri is growing up with their backing. Unfortunately, as she gets older, she can truly understand the meaning of her sister’s death. Juri was only three when Airi died. Still, even then she seemed to have noticed that Airi wasn’t there anymore. Mrs. Satou works to tell her story to others, and Juri is starting to do the same.
It’s impossible to know for sure which tragedies could have been prevented, and we cannot assume that these teachers truly did not care for the children under their care. The staff of the kindergarten reportedly thought that “the children were cold and scared, so we thought it would be best if we immediately sent them to be with their caregivers”. Even if this was genuine misguidance, it speaks to a general trend behind these tragedies. Hiyori Kindergarten, Okawa Elementary School-all of these have in common the same problem. That is “thinking lightly of the tsunami”. In other words, expecting that the tsunami wouldn’t come, and if it did, it was nothing to worry about. Even if we suppose that the tsunami was truly unexpected, in several of these cases, there was time for people to change their behaviors. What marks these sorts of incidents as despicable and more than just unfortunate accidents based on flawed human reasoning is the response after the disaster. Instead of properly taking responsibility and apologizing for the survivors’ loss, these places tried to make it all the fault of the tsunami. I believe that even if that were the case, to not apologize at all, or send the surviving families your condolences is incredibly disrespectful. We see the survivors get continually wounded by the callous mistreatment of their lost relatives’ memories. Even if we cannot prevent future disasters, I believe we can at least change the way people react when they do occur.