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Student survivors of 3.11 disaster erect 21st '1,000-year' tsunami warning marker

Members of the "association for protecting life after 1,000 years in Onagawa" and others smile in front of the 21st stone monument set up in front of Onagawa Elementary and Junior High School, in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, on Nov. 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Natsuki Nishi)

ONAGAWA, Miyagi -- In the wake of the devastation caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, junior high school students in this east Japan coastal town began installing stone monuments that would continue to "protect life after 1,000 years," and their activities recently reached a major milestone.

    The "Onagawa stone monument for life" project in the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, has completed its targeted 21st monument, and an unveiling ceremony was held on Nov. 21. Graduates of a local junior high school, who have been working together for the past 10 years, thanked those involved in the project for the support that enabled them to achieve their goal, and pledged to make a new start.

    The 21st monument was erected next to the school buildings of the municipal Onagawa Elementary and Junior High School, which was newly built in 2020, in a corner overlooking Onagawa bay. The monument is inscribed with instructions for others in the event of a tsunami, such as, "When a big earthquake comes, please run to a place higher than this monument."

    The students who entered Onagawa Daiichi Junior High School (later Onagawa Junior High School) immediately after the earthquake had all lost loved ones or had their homes washed away by the tsunami. They discussed countermeasures in their social studies class and came up with the idea of installing stone monuments, in hopes that people who will live in the future wouldn't have to feel the same way as they did.

    The students collected more than 10 million yen (about $87,600) through fundraising, and with the help of adults around them, the first monument was set up in November 2013. After graduating, they continued to work together as the group they called the "association for protecting life after 1,000 years in Onagawa," and set up monuments at the highest point of the 2011 tsunami at each beach in the town.

    For the Nov. 21 ceremony, the members invited people involved in the project to express their gratitude for the support. After the monument was unveiled, they took a commemorative photo with smiles on their faces. Those photographed included Kazuhiko Abe, the current principal of Monou Junior High School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, who has supported them since their junior high school days.

    All 21 monuments are inscribed with haiku poems written by the junior high school students right after the earthquake, and the 21st one has the same haiku as the first one: "Only my dream / could not be destroyed / by the great earthquake."

    The members were happy to realize their "dream" of erecting 21 monuments, and engraved a new dream in their hearts.

    "This is just the beginning, and my dream is to continue this activity until 1,000 years from now and reduce the number of casualties (in disasters)," said 22-year-old Shu Yamashita, who works at the Kesennuma Coast Guard Station.

    Another member, Yui Ito, 23, who lives in Yokohama, said, "My dream has never wavered because we continued the project together. I'm teaching children as a dancer, and I hope I can continue this activity and dance in a way to express sympathy for others."

    As well as installing the monuments, the group is continuing activities including creating textbooks to preserve memories related to the earthquake and speaking about their disaster experiences, and will consider installing a new monument.

    (Japanese original by Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Bureau)

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