On my trip north at the beginning of the month one of the most harrowing places I visited was the Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki. Though quite removed from the shocking destruction of that large city and far inland, in a wide river valley to the rural north, it spoke of the power of the March 11th 2011 tsunami more than any place I have yet visited on the Tohoku coast.
The thing is you cannot see the ocean from the school; the valley is all fields, wooded hillsides and bucolic peacefulness. It feels safe and far removed from any danger. A perfect place to build a school in fact and it was that sense of security perhaps that led to delays in evacuating the children after the earthquake struck at 2:46pm, a delay that cost 84 staff and students their lives when the tsunami later swept up the valley.
Today there is still a lot of anger about the indecision of the teachers, who apparently waited 50 minutes in the playground after the quake before eventually deciding to move the kids towards higher ground that was much further away than the hillsides that rise just next to the school. The blame for these delays has led to law suits and suicides.
For some parents and relatives the school buildings themselves are a sore reminder of their tragedy and they have called for the remains of what, in its day must have been an amazing place to come and study, to be demolished.
Over sixty percent of Ishinomaki residents however want to keep the ruined school as a memorial to those that died. This dilemma appears to have been solved for the moment. In a news conference on Saturday March 26th the Mayor of Ishinomaki, Hiroshi Kameyama set out his plans to make the school into a monument to the victims of that day.
“It is an important place to remember and mourn the victims as well as educate people about disaster preparedness and pass on what transpired.” He said. Adding that there are no plans to reinforce the building or attempt to repair any of the damaged structures.
“To raise awareness about disaster preparedness, we need to keep what we have as it is.”
He plans to shield the ruined classrooms and gymnasiums with trees as a compromise for those that cannot bear to look at the building where their loved ones died and build a memorial park around the site.
While I can understand the pain the parents of the children who died must feel, I am glad they are keeping the school. It is a beautiful place despite the tragedy that overtook it. Yet I think there must also be many happy memories associated with the walls and playgrounds here that have not been entirely wiped out by that destructive black wave and it is important to think of those also. Mostly though we need such memorials to remind us not to under estimate nature, nor take it for granted that beauty is always benign. I can understand why the teachers thought they would be safe here: it feels safe, it feels relaxed; nothing much could or should happen in this wide, quite valley surrounded by fields and trees. But nature is unpredictable and this ruin with its ghosts tells us we must never forget that. As I have said before.