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Tsunami-hit elementary school in Miyagi stages closing ceremony with song

Michio Soga, composer of the Okawa Elementary School song, is seen at his home in Sendai's Izumi Ward, on Feb. 21, 2018. (Mainichi)

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi -- An elementary school here that saw 84 of its students and staff killed by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 held a closing ceremony in the morning of Feb. 24 ahead of its planned closure later this fiscal year.

    To mark the occasion, current students and alumni of Ishinomaki Municipal Okawa Elementary School performed the school song, composed by 88-year-old Michio Soga ahead of the school's opening in 1985.

    This April 15, 2011 file photo shows a damaged panel with the lyrics of the Okawa Elementary School song inside the school building in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. (Mainichi)

    "I want people to hold the school song close to their hearts, and open up the future of their hometown," Soga said prior to the ceremony, expressing hope for present and former students to become united, and experience a special feeling when singing the song.

    Reflecting on the 1985 opening ceremony, Soga says, "I could see people's eyes light up about creating the new school." Prior to the opening, Soga tried hard to compose a song with stirring lyrics that students could sing in a positive fashion.

    As Soga focused on the melody, the late Hiroshi Tomita, who passed away in 2014 at age 95, worked on the lyrics. In 1984, one year before the school opened, Tomita visited the area around the school to gather some ideas.

    Tomita's second son, Fuminobu, 71, who accompanied his father at the time, remembers the day well. "There was so much natural beauty in the area, such as mountains, rivers and rows of cherry blossom trees. The scenery apparently impressed my dad," Fuminobu says.

    The day of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, March 11, 2011, happened to be Tomita's 92nd birthday. Upon hearing about the disastrous situation at Okawa Elementary School, Tomita lamented, "Why didn't they all run toward the mountains?" The only comfort, he said, was that their teachers were with them at the time. He demanded to be taken to the school.

    While the school is closing -- due to low student numbers -- Fuminobu maintains hope for the children there.

    "Even after the school fades away, I want people to hum the school song, and to be able to reflect on the institution that way," he says.

    "I want the kids to grow up strong, as that will help open up a bright future for their hometown," Soga also says.

    The school currently has just 29 students. Sae Hiratsuka, 9, who is in her third year, and Toma Hiratsuka, 13, an Okawa graduate, lost their elder sister Koharu in the tsunami. Koharu was supposed to graduate from the school on March 18, 2011 -- singing the school song at the graduation ceremony -- but she never made it.

    "I want to sing the school song with a feeling of us opening up the future together," Sae said before the ceremony. Toma, meanwhile, commented, "Instead of dwelling on the past, I want to sing the song with the aim of carrying on this song for many more decades."

    Prior to the disasters in 2011, there were 108 students at the school but 74 of them were killed by the tsunami. In April 2011, the school restarted lessons using a makeshift campus set up on the premises of another elementary school about 11 kilometers away. Since January 2014, the school has also made use of the campus at nearby Futamata Elementary School. Local residents have tried to keep Okawa Elementary School going but the low number of students, combined with the fact that parents of prospective pupils want their children to make many friends, have led to the decision to merge with Futamata Elementary School.

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