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Bring back my friends: After grieving Japan tsunami victims, a survivor looks ahead (Pt. 2)

Shiori Takeyama plays with her younger sister at a park near the family's new home in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Tome on June 21, 2014. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi -- The devastating tsunami triggered by the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, claimed the lives of 74 of the 108 students at Ishinomaki Municipal Okawa Elementary School and 10 of the teachers.

    A decade after the disaster, I have continued to meet and interview 20-year-old Shiori Takeyama, who was then a fourth grader at the school and her family. I met her about a month after the disaster. Confronting memories of many friends who lost their lives to the tsunami, Shiori has been paving her own way through junior high school, high school, college and beyond.

    It was the teachers of Okawa Elementary School, along with students' parents and other guardians, who truly supported the students as they faced immeasurable degrees of grief and sorrow due to the quake and tsunami. When Okawa Elementary rented space inside the then Iinogawa Daiichi Elementary School in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Ishinomaki and Shiori and her classmates became fifth graders, they had a new homeroom teacher, who had taught at Okawa Elementary. He was under immense pressure, and did not feel he could be of any help to the children under the circumstances in which they found themselves. Still, he did not let on to his students that he had any misgivings. He gave priority to protecting them, thinking hard about what he could do for them in anticipation of their lives five or 10 years down the line while harboring heartache and torment. All the other teachers felt the same way.

    The teacher told the students that their schoolmates were valuable to each other, pointing out that they shared something only those who had gone through the same experience could understand. He even delivered letters that students had written to their late friends to grieving family members. Shiori says of her teacher with gratitude, "Rather than simply watching over us gently, he was strict in a normal way."

    Five years after the disaster, in April 2016, Shiori began attending high school in Ishinomaki, meaning she was commuting close to the Okawa district once again. It was in high school that she met Miki Furuuchi, 20, a friend to whom she could open up. To make time to be with Shiori, who rushed off to her part-time jobs after school, Furuuchi would take the train with her, which went in the opposite direction from where she lived. And it was on those train rides that they chatted about everything from crushes to goings-on at school.

    This photo shows a "letter" that Shiori Takeyama wrote on the back of a flyer in March or April 2011, shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck. Her grandmother found it, and her mother took it for safekeeping. It is addressed to "Anyone" and goes on to say, "What should I do? My friends are gone. My best friends are gone. God, please help me. Please give me my friends back ... I hope the world goes back to the way it was." (Photo courtesy of Kumi Takeyama)

    "I only know the cheerful Shiori, but I've heard from friends of hers who knew her before that 'she became cheerier once she became a high school student,'" Furuuchi said. The two shared their worries with each other, but Shirori hardly ever spoke about the period right after the disaster and Furuuchi did not ask. Around that time, Shiori had been telling me that memories of the disaster had stopped popping up in her head like they had before. It wasn't that she had forgotten about Okawa Elementary. But, she said, "It's like there's me at Okawa, and another me post-Okawa."

    When Shiori got her driver's license after graduating from high school, she went to visit the damaged Okawa Elementary School by herself for the first time. After that, she would stop by the former school after attending lectures at a college in Ishinomaki, spending some quiet time to herself there. The school bore painful scars left behind by the tsunami, but what the site conjures up in Shiori's mind is still the nice, clean school where she used to play with her friends.

    During breaks between classes, she and her friends would run outside to the schoolyard to ride unicycles, or stay indoors and draw. She still remembers how their handmade cupcakes tasted after a game of musical chairs. It's those simple moments that come to mind.

    On a rainy day in December 2020, Shiori and I headed together toward what used to be Okawa Elementary School. Maintenance work was being conducted on the former school to preserve it as a relic of the disaster. "Would you like to have a cookie with me?" Shiori asked, handing one over. I placed it on the altar by the school. We pressed our palms together in silence for about a minute. Shiori took out more cookies from a bag. The sweetness spread throughout our mouths, relaxing our cheeks, which had become stiff from the cold. Shiori said this was how she always had her cookies here.

    I asked her what kind of dialogue was passing through her mind as she honored the victims in her moment of silence. "About school and stuff..." she said, and fell silent. After hesitating whether she should verbalize what was on her mind, she said loudly enough so that her voice would not be drowned out by the maintenance work going on, "There's a part of me that wants to go where everyone else is. My parents tell me that I 'have to live my life because it was spared' so I never say it out loud, but even now, I sometimes think it." The rain let up and a rainbow stretched across the sky. "Every time, I debate whether it's OK for me to come here. But for a rainbow to come out at this timing. Today, I'm glad I came," Shiori said, smiling.

    Visible scars of the tsunami are seen at the former Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture on Feb. 11, 2021. Alumnus Shiori Takeyama says, "In my heart, it's still the nice, clean school where I used to play with my friends." (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

    This past February, Shiori emailed her 53-year-old fifth grade homeroom teacher to update him on her life. "I was at university studying to become a day care teacher, but I'm thinking of taking a detour. Due to the effects of the coronavirus, I wasn't able to study this past year in the way that I wanted to, and things were getting increasingly tight financially," she wrote. Also, with all of her classes going online, she was worried that even if she graduated as scheduled, she wouldn't be able to confidently face the children that she would be in charge of at day care.

    Part of the reason she worked multiple part-time jobs was to pay back student loans. "If I consulted with my parents, they probably would have helped me out, but that didn't feel right. This is the first time I'm making such a huge decision on my own," she continued. At the end of her email, she wrote, "I will start working at a facility for handicapped people in the spring, and once I am less overwhelmed (financially), I plan on going back to university."

    Previously Shiori shared an anecdote about a conversation she had had with her mother when she was in junior high school. "Everyone else has stayed in fourth grade, and I'm the only one getting older, and I don't want to be the only grandma when we see each other again," Shiori had said. But her mother responded, "In the afterlife, you get to be the person you were when you were having the most fun." That had provided Shiori some relief. "It meant I could return to who I was when I was in sixth grade, or maybe even when I'm 20. I figured I could get on board with that," she said, adding that at some point, she started having dreams in which friends from junior high school, high school, and Okawa Elementary school played together.

    Starting this spring, Shiori will begin the "detour" that she chose to take herself. She has yet to let her friends from Okawa Elementary beyond the skies know about her plans. "Once I've gotten used to work, I want to tell them, 'This is where I am,'" she said. At the very end of the path Shiori is on, are all the friends she lost in the disaster, waiting for her with smiles. Shiori swore that until the day they meet again, she will savor the days that continue to arrive one after another.

    (Japanese original by Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Bureau)

    (This is Part 2 of a two-part series)

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