Kenji Miyazawa's famed fantasy novel "Night on the Galactic Railroad" starts in a classroom. A teacher hangs a map of the constellations on the blackboard and begins to talk about the Milky Way. There is a mural based on this book on one wall of Okawa Elementary School, where 74 children and 10 staff lost their lives to the tsunami that struck Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11, 2011.
The mural was painted by students who graduated before the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster hit. It shows a steam train, light leaking into the night of space through windows, as it chugs its way through the cosmos. The constellation Orion shines brightly in the background. The kids at this school probably studied hard the masterpiece by Tohoku native and literary star Miyazawa.
Someone just off a tour bus turns a camera casually on the mural. For the locals, there's nothing casual about this place, standing as it did on the day after the disaster, gutted by the waves. There are people here who lost loved ones in that building, and just looking at it is deeply painful. Some people say it should be preserved. So, should Okawa Elementary remain as a monument to 3/11, or should it be torn down? Opinions were divided, but in the end the Ishinomaki Municipal Government decided to preserve it.
It is the voices of the school's graduates that were instrumental in preserving the mural and the school building. One of those graduates is 16-year-old Tetsuya Tadano, who was in grade five at the time of the disaster. He was lucky enough to survive the tsunami, but his little sister and his friends were killed at the school. His mother and grandfather were also lost. He tells the Mainichi Shimbun that he visits the ruins of Okawa Elementary whenever he feels troubled by his studies or his school club.
Seeing the building makes Tadano remember the disaster, but more than that it stirs memories of all the good times he had with his friends -- playing soccer, looking at the cherry blossoms in spring, snowball fights... These happy moments continue on in his mind because he survived. And that's why "I feel sorry whenever I let myself feel down or worried," Tadano says. The school building "gives me courage," he goes on. "It's also proof that my friends were alive once."
"Night on the Galactic Railroad," about the lonely boy Giovanni and his interstellar adventures with his friend Campanella, was in fact never quite finished. How did the lives of the other Okawa Elementary students turn out? What journeys have they taken?
The school building will be preserved as both a monument to the March 2011 disaster, and an education center for teaching people about disaster prevention. For the Okawa Elementary graduates who painted the mural, the building also stands as a testament to the lives that were lived within its walls before the waves came, and they will protect it. ("Yoroku" is a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)