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.