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A teenager's resolve to keep sharing experience of March 2011 quake, tsunami

Honoka Shino presses her palms together in front of bamboo lanterns honoring those who died in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake on the 21st anniversary of the disaster on Jan. 17, 2016. (Mainichi)

KOBE -- Attending a ceremony here honoring the victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake has helped one teenager who survived the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that took place further north of the country to understand the grave importance of sharing stories of her experience with others.

    In the predawn hours of Jan. 17, which marked the 21st anniversary since the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe and its surrounding areas, 17-year-old Honoka Shino, a second-year high school student from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, was found with her family at Higashi Yuenchi Park in Kobe's Chuo Ward, where an event commemorating the 1995 disaster was taking place. Candle flames danced inside bamboo lanterns, and white smoke rose up into the dark sky.

    The clock struck 5:46 a.m., the time the quake hit. The lights were turned off, and participants pressed their palms together. Sobs were heard from the crowd.

    The moment a more recent quake hit further north on March 11, 2011, Shino was in the gym at Higashimatsushima Municipal Nobiru Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture. As the tsunami gushed into the gym, her classmates and adults tried to save those who had evacuated to the gym following the temblor. Some lost their lives. She and her classmates shouted at each other not to give up.

    Shino lost her grandfather in the tsunami. For a long time she'd been unable to speak about the disaster, but last May, she formed a group with her classmates to share stories with visitors about the very fine line that had existed between those who died and those who survived.

    The water burst through the door, and the gym turned into a sort of washing machine, with water swirling around, Shino recalls. "Carrying our backpacks as floats, we promised each other that we wouldn't die. I kept praying for the water to stop."

    Through her story-telling activities, Shino came in contact with people who survived the Kobe earthquake, which led to her desire to see with her own eyes Kobe's commemorative event that takes place every year on Jan. 17. There, she witnessed children who were not yet born when the Kobe earthquake took place bringing their palms together alongside adults. To Shino, it was evidence that stories about the disaster were being passed down to younger generations. "That's why even though they didn't experience the disaster themselves, they can still pray for its victims," she thought.

    Almost five years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Memories are fading, as is the public's interest in the disaster and its aftermath. But maybe, just maybe, Shino thinks, if she continues to share her stories, it will prompt people to think about it.

    ***

    For Shino a watershed came in June 2014.

    Honoka Shino is pictured talking about her experiences in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami at what used to be her home, where her grandfather died in the tsunami, in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, in August 2015. (Mainichi)

    At a disaster prevention study session at Miyagi Prefectural Ishinomaki-Nishi High School where she had enrolled, she heard Shimako Abe, 54, a local resident, give a lecture on disaster prevention. Abe, who ran an underwater construction company with her husband, had, as a self-proclaimed disaster prevention expert and volunteer, given lessons at Nobiru Elementary School on swimming with one's clothes on and read picture books on tsunami to students.

    "On March 11, 2011, I didn't evacuate," Abe recalled. "I was convinced by the case of the tsunami caused by the Chile earthquake in 1960 that the river would take in the waves and the tsunami wouldn't reach us."

    Abe, who was at her company building, was swallowed by the tsunami in March 2011, and drifted into the river. She miraculously survived. Having failed to evacuate, she felt compelled to share her mistakes with other people.

    Shino could not stop crying as Abe told her story. "Putting a lid on painful memories does not ease the pain," Abe said. Shino wrote that down in her notebook and circled it. That's when Shino became convinced that she, too, had to share her story -- and when she got home, she told her sister, Sayaka, now 21, just that.

    In the summer the following year, Shino spoke at an exchange event between students in the Tohoku region, which was hit hardest by the March 2011 disasters, and the Kansai region, which was struck by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.

    "Because it was a week before graduation, there was a celebratory red and white curtain hanging in the gym. So we ripped that off and threw it to people who were drowning in the water. Those who were seeking help were trying hard not to go under, but there were people who eventually disappeared into the water ... I kept thinking it was all a dream and pinched my face over and over."

    The gym was 1.2 kilometers from the ocean. Shino had evacuated to the second-floor gallery of the gym, 3 meters high. The water stopped just short of Shino's feet. Even after the sun had set, the water did not recede. Shino and her classmates encouraged each other as the darkness, cold and silence enveloped the gym. They soon started singing their school song.

    Shino's fifth-grade homeroom teacher, Takehide Ankai, 45, had been in the gym at the time. He had finished rescuing everyone he could, and his body, drenched in water, felt heavy. That was when he heard the students begin to sing. "They've got some grit to be singing, under these circumstances," he thought to himself. It was a ray of hope in the cold darkness.

    From the gymnasium at Nobiru Elementary School, where approximately 350 people had evacuated, 13 people were found dead. Over 10 percent, or 515 people, of those living in the district of Nobiru, died. Among the victims were Ankai's parents and grandmother, and Shino's then 65-year-old grandfather, Itsuo. Neighbors had urged Itsuo to evacuate from his home, but he refused, saying he was going to wait for his granddaughter, Shino, and stood in front of his house, facing the direction of the school.

    To stop such a tragedy from happening again, Shino shares the story about her grandfather, too.

    "When I found my grandfather at the morgue, I kept saying 'I'm sorry' in my heart. I told him, 'I'm alive, so don't worry about me.' I realized I had no choice but to accept the reality before me."

    In March, which will mark the five-year anniversary of the quake and tsunami, Nobiru Elementary School will close down, due to the merging and closing of schools resulting from dropping numbers in children. Shino wrote a letter to Ankai, giving him an update on her life. "Helping to raise the children of Nobiru to be healthy and strong is my path to recovery," Ankai wrote back. "What you can do is perhaps pass down your experiences. We'll both keep doing our best, all right?"

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