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Bring back my friends: Survivor mourns loss of classmates 10 yrs after Japan tsunami (Pt. 1)

Shiori Takeyama stands in front of the former Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 11, 2021. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi -- On Jan. 10 of this year, as the coronavirus spread viciously across Japan, many municipal governments in the northeastern Japanese prefecture of Miyagi held Coming-of-Age Day ceremonies, and 20-year-olds were seen all decked out in festive dress and protective masks, rejoicing in their reunions with childhood friends. But 20-year-old Shiori Takeyama, who had technically reached adulthood like the others, spent the weekend just like any other, working at her part-time jobs at a supermarket and a convenience store.

    Seventy-four of 108 students at Ishinomaki Municipal Okawa Elementary School and 10 staff died due to a giant tsunami that swallowed the school after a major earthquake hit the waters off northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Shiori was a fourth grader at the school. Ten years since the day the friends she saw every day in class disappeared, Shiori was still trying to regain some semblance of normalcy in a world turned upside down.

    For those who were in the fourth grade at Okawa Elementary and their parents a decade ago, there are two days that have been etched into their memories. One is March 11, the day of the massive tsunami. The other is March 2.

    In the fourth-graders' classroom on the second floor of the school, there were 18 students' mothers, gathered there for a 1/2 Coming-of-Age ceremony. The students each stood face to face with their mothers, and read out loud the letters that they had prepared. "Mom, thanks for giving birth to me," one said, while another asked their mother, "Please stay by my side forever." No one -- not the students reading the letters, not their mothers, not the others listening -- could hold back their tears.

    But they were running late that day, and the students did not have enough time to sing the song that they had been practicing for their mothers. It was the song "Arigato" (Thank you) by the popular band Ikimonogakari. The students' homeroom teacher, then 27-year-old Yoshiki Sasaki, suggested that they record it at a later date and give them to their families on CD.

    The recording took place nine days later, after school. Just over three minutes after the students started singing, the clock pointed to 2:46.

    "I think we'd just finished the first verse of the song, and weren't yet into the second verse," a 10-year-old Shiori said. She recounted the events of that day when I met her, about a month after the earthquake, at a community center that was serving as an evacuation center. Intense shaking had turned singing voices into screams, and the power went out inside the school. Shiori and her classmates scrambled to get under their desks, and then following their teacher's and other staff's instructions, went down the stairs and ran outside. "Water from the fish tank in the library had spilled out," she recalled. The students evacuated to the schoolyard in their indoor shoes, and roll call began. Shiori's comments about that day are written in my notes from that day I met her: "It shook so badly that some kids were crying," "I couldn't think about anything but my mom. Like what if our house has collapsed," and, "My friends and I huddled together because we were so scared."

    Shiori's mother, Kumi, 48, remembers arriving at the school by car at around 3:25. She asked Shiori, who had run up to her, "What do you want to do? Do you want to stay with everyone?" Shiori responded, "I want to go home because I'm scared." They both got into the car. By then, Kumi thinks it was a little past 3:30.

    When Kumi saw water from the Kitakami River flood over the levee at the base of Shin-Kitakami Ohashi bridge, located at a slightly higher elevation than her daughter's school, she turned the wheel and headed toward higher ground. The three clocks at Okawa Elementary are stopped at 3:37.

    Shiori eats her school lunch at the rented space her school used at another elementary school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, about six months after the 2011 quake and tsunami, on Sept. 12, 2011. (Mainichi/Nobuyuki Hyakutake)

    Shortly after the quake, I headed by car from Tokyo toward the hard-hit Tohoku region in northeastern Japan. Trying to get an idea of the damage in the coastal areas, about which information was scarce, I happened to find myself in Ishinomaki's Okawa district. A couple who had lost their son, a third grader at Okawa Elementary, repeatedly questioned the school's response to the quake. "There's a hill right in front of the school, so why didn't they take refuge there?" they said. It was that "why" that drove me to interview families who lost their children to the tsunami, and residents living near the school. As I continued to do so, I became concerned about what awaited the students who had survived. And Shiori had been one of them.

    On April 21, a little over a month after the disaster, Okawa Elementary School rented space on the second floor of what was then Iinogawa Daiichi Elementary School in Ishinomaki and resumed classes with 22 students, including newly incoming children. In September, when I visited the school during lunch time, the teachers and staff pointed out the plight they were in: "This is all we have." The school lunch center that prepared the school's hot lunches every day had been damaged in the disaster, and all they had were two side dishes each. But still, Shiori and the others seemed to be enjoying their lunch break. I learned that the students were honoring their late friends and teachers through letters, songs, or any other form of expression, on their monthly death anniversaries. I understood this as their way of making space in their hearts for their friends and teachers who had suddenly disappeared.

    When I made a visit to Shiori in February 2014, she was living in an apartment in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Tome with her mother Kumi, her 14-month-old sister Yuna, and her father. She seemed a little bit grown up now that she was a first-year student in junior high school, and cheerfully spoke about the days since we'd seen each other.

    At her elementary school graduation, there were only three others graduating with her, so it was difficult to remember all the words to the parting address they gave to the rest of the school, she said. She also told me that the junior high school she was attending in Tome was one with an attached elementary school, so she had been worried whether she would be able to make friends as a complete newcomer, but that she now had friends that she could visit at their homes and vice versa. Another thing that came up was that she was playing the trombone in the school's brass band club. Her mother, Kumi, said that Shiori helped out a lot with her younger sister.

    In September of the year that Shiori became a junior high school student, she said she watched a video of the 1/2 Coming-of-Age ceremony and kept it a secret from her mother. September was her late teacher's birthday month. All of a sudden she wanted to hear his voice, one that she could no longer hear in person since he was lost to the tsunami. In the video, she saw her friends as they were back then, and could hear her teacher's voice, whom she could not see because he was the one recording the event. "It's already been three years. It went by so quickly. It doesn't feel like I haven't seen everyone for that long, and I'm surprised I can tolerate not having seen them for that long," Shiori said. She also told me that in her school bag, she keeps a photograph of a fourth-grade class picture with everyone under the cherry trees before the day the quake and tsunami hit.

    One day, I sent Shiori's mother, Kumi, a text. Shiori responded with words and emojis. I asked her what she treasured the most at the moment, and her response: "I'd say my friends." When I asked why, Kumi responded by sending me a photo. It was a "letter" that Shiori's grandmother found in March or April of 2011, shortly after the disaster, and Kumi had taken it for safekeeping.

    Written on the back of a flyer, it starts with, "Dear Anyone."

    "What should I do? My friends are gone. My best friends are gone. God, please help me ... I hope the world goes back to the way it was."

    It was likely written even before she was able to reunite with her friends who did survive. It was a fervent cry hidden behind Shiori's smile.

    (Japanese original by Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Bureau)

    (This is Part 1 of a two-part series)

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