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Only 44% of education boards have tsunami countermeasure plans: Mainichi survey

Okawa Elementary School, which was flooded by the tsunami caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, is seen in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in this Oct. 15, 2016 file photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Only 44 percent of municipal boards of education facing tsunami risks say they have or are considering implementing measures to protect students, teachers and officials at their schools, which an April court decision pointed out is necessary, a survey by the Mainichi Shimbun has found.

Measures such as determining evacuation sites and the routes to them, as well as including them in crisis management manuals were ruled necessary by the Sendai High Court. The decision was reached over a deadly tsunami case involving an elementary school in the northern Japan prefecture of Miyagi.

Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, lost 74 pupils and 10 teachers and officials in the March 11, 2011 tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The family members of 23 of the child victims filed a damages lawsuit against the Ishinomaki municipal and the Miyagi prefectural governments.

The high court judged that the principal and others at the school neglected their duty to ensure the safety of children as stipulated by the School Health and Safety Act, and the Ishinomaki Board of Education failed to take action to have the school correct its policies. The defendants appealed the high court decision that also ordered them to pay about 1.4 billion yen in compensation to the families.

The Mainichi Shimbun survey conducted in August and September covered boards of education in 176 cities, towns and villages over 17 prefectures -- Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures that suffered massive damage in the 2011 tsunami and 14 prefectures that face tsunami risks in the event of a Nankai Trough earthquake that could affect parts of southern, western and central parts of Japan's coast. Of the total, 175 boards, or 99.4 percent, responded.

Among the respondents, 35 boards said it is difficult for schools and the boards of education above them to prepare the tsunami countermeasures that the high court ruling called for. Reasons for the stated difficulty included a lack of experts, pointed out by a municipal education board in the Kanto region around Tokyo. Meanwhile, a board in the western Japan region of Shikoku cited the challenge of going beyond government-issued "hazard maps" that show areas facing higher risks of natural disasters, and taking extra steps to be prepared. Okawa Elementary School was located outside of the designated risk areas on the local hazard map.

Twenty-eight boards of education answered that the high court ruling was "appropriate," and they plan to take corresponding measures, such as reviewing their crisis management manuals. A board in another municipality in Kanto said the review "needs to include situations that go beyond expected damage."

Education boards of 49 municipal governments responded that they had implemented the countermeasures called for in the court decision. These include joint training sessions with local residents and regular drills to hand over children to their guardians. Forty-seven boards did not specify what actions they were taking, while 16 did not answer.

When asked about tsunami countermeasures, 95 percent of 987 elementary schools that have their premises or commuting routes inside tsunami risk areas said they incorporate certain steps in their crisis manuals. Fifty-four schools said they do not have such policies, while 92 schools said they have not designated specific evacuation areas or routes.

Masaki Watanabe, a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University and a specialist in safety education said schools and boards of education must tackle this issue as their respective situations require. Watanabe was involved in putting together the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's guidelines on compiling school disaster preparedness manuals.

"Children's lives are top priority," said Watanabe. "You cannot justify inaction by simply saying that you are too short-staffed (to create countermeasures)."

(Japanese original by Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Bureau, Sachi Machino, Chiba Bureau, and Daisuke Shimabukuro, Nagano Bureau)

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