A wave of hope

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About 90 students were rescued from the roof of the flooded Nakahama Elementary School.

After suffering three disasters in one, Kiwanis Japan targets one key area of need: education. 

Story and photos by Jack Brockley

At 15 years old, Souta Sasaki was moving on. Tomorrow, March 12, 2011, he would graduate from Shizugawa Middle School. He’d attend Kesennuma High School and a university.

But that’s about as far as his plans went.

“I was in middle school,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I just knew I wanted to come back home.

Why?

“Because I love my town.”

At 2:46 in the afternoon on March 11, 2011, Sasaki sat at his desk inside the hilltop school. With commencement scheduled the next day, he and his classmates were sorting papers, which their teacher had just handed out. About 50 miles to the east, 18 miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, a massive tectonic plate slipped. The land surface on sections of Honshu island fell. Earth’s axis shifted. NASA calculated that the shift may have shortened the length of each day by about 1.8 microsecond.

The Great East Japan Earthquake is one of the most powerful to hit Japan. It spawned waves, some of which reached nearly 100 feet, which caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Collectively, the three-part disaster is commonly called 3.11. According to the Japan National Police Agency, more than 15,000 people died. More than 2,500 remain missing. 3.11 changed the way Japan looks at and prepares for earthquakes and tsunamis.

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Shizugawa’s Crisis Management Department building.

It also disrupted the educational routine for area students. And that is why and how Souta Sasaki and Kiwanis met.

Within minutes of the quake, sirens swept back and forth across the port, and Miki Endo’s calm, strong voice echoed off the hillside, calling, “Warning! A tsunami is approaching. Move to higher ground.” (Endo died at her station when waters overwhelmed the town’s three-story Crisis Management Department building.)

Videos, shot from the middle school’s vantage point, show traffic speeding away from the coast and lines of people climbing concrete steps toward the highly-placed school. The sea easily rushes over two-story-tall harbor walls and floods the town. Houses disintegrate as they crash into one another. Cars and trucks bob among the raging river of wreckage. In one scene, water catches the rear wheels of a bus as it moves up the switchback road toward the school. The vehicle sways, but the tires find traction and the bus escapes.

Sasaki saw none of it. Students were kept inside until the water receded.

“There were fires everywhere,” he recalls of his first view of Shizugawa. “It was very cold and snowing.”

His thoughts turned quickly to his parents.

“I thought my mother probably had died,” he says. “She was a kindergarten teacher at a nearby school that was close to the shore. I thought my father would be safe, because his school was farther away.”

The middle school students remained in the classroom for three days. Sasaki and his mother, Chika, were reunited five days later. His father, Takayoshi, was missing. One year and four months later, his body was discovered and identified—another victim of one of the disaster’s saddest tragedies. At the Okawa Elementary School where Takayoshi taught second grade, 74 students died or remain missing. Ten of the faculty’s 11 teachers died.

Stunned by his personal loss, Souta Sasaki wandered through the debris of his beloved city. He also volunteered to help other survivors at a temporary shelter set up in the Shizugawa Elementary School gymnasium. It was there that he met Ayumi Ogusu. A volunteer from Tokyo, Ogusu quickly understood the effect the disaster would have on students and their education. It was a concern she held in common with area Kiwanis members.

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Eight of the area’s 14 elementary and middle schools were flooded in the disaster, leading Kiwanis to focus on children’s educational needs by supporting tutoring programs and donating equipment to affected schools. One recipient is the new Miyano Mori Elementary School.

“Initially, the children were living in temporary shelters, where their teachers were staying,” says Yoshiaki Sato of the Sendai Kiwanis Club. “When they moved into temporary housing, they were so spread apart and there was no one to help them. The tsunami disrupted their lives, and they fell out of the habit of studying, not just in Shizugawa but in other affected areas as well.”

To address this problem, Ogusu established TERACO, a learning center where students could study and prepare themselves to compete for acceptance into high school, college or jobs. Initially, children lived in shelters; so, that’s where TERACO set up. When families relocated into temporary homes, the Hotel Kanyo opened rooms for TERACO students. As living situations continued to shift, a Kiwanis donation allowed TERACO to build a temporary library near Shizugawa’s schools.


“Through generous support from all over the world, Kiwanis Japan received more than a half-million US dollars, including a grant from the Kiwanis Children’s Fund.”


“Through generous support from all over the world, Kiwanis Japan and the Sendai Kiwanis Club directly received more than a half-million US dollars, including a grant from the Kiwanis Children’s Fund,” says Sato. (This generosity so inspired the district that 100 percent of its clubs have supported The Eliminate Project.) “The Japan District and Kiwanis Japan Foundation established the Kiwanis Clubs Joint Fund to be administered by Kiwanis clubs in the affected areas: Sapporo, Sendai, Fukushima and Chiba.” (The Sendai club also established its own fund and maintains web pages at sendaikiwanis.jp/eng to report on the distribution of monies from both funds. Many schools, for example, no longer could afford extracurricular activities. Kiwanis filled the gap, replacing athletic equipment, arranging for musical and theatrical performances and supporting after-school study programs.)

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Sasaki regularly studied at TERACO, where he met volunteer college students who talked to him about his future and influenced his decision to attend Miyagi University of Education. Today, he returns home frequently—nearly 60 miles from his Sendai campus—to tutor children.

He also earned a certificate as a disaster-prevention spokesman. He leads tours of disaster sites and speaks to groups about 3.11. Through social media, he connects with members of other families who lost a child or parent at Okawa Elementary School.

“They all try very hard to accept what has happened to them,” he says. “They lost their homes, as well as family members, but they themselves are still alive. They’re determined to do whatever they can to cope with their loss and to remember.”

Sasaki remembers too. His father, he says, was respected by his students and peers alike. As Takayoshi’s son, Souta’s favorite memories include their trips to the area’s hot springs. But he had never visited his father’s school. Now, he returns there often.

This past February on a cold, windy afternoon, he led a small group of Kiwanis members and media crews to the site along the Kitakami River. There, he would show them his father’s classroom, where a line of vertical, twisted and broken rebar is the only remaining evidence of what was once the exterior wall. They would  talk about the nearby access road, where the children and their teachers had sought in vain for refuge from the fast-advancing water.

Before the tour, Sasaki stopped at a shrine. Other visitors had left behind Buddha statuettes, plants, incense sticks and more. In silence with bowed head, Sasaki paid his respects to the children and adults who died there. It’s a ritual he practices at every disaster-struck community he visits.

“We can’t forget,” he says. “Every generation needs to remember what happened that day so we can be prepared and prevent this from happening again.”

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A shrine at Okawa Elementary School stands today as memorials of March 11, 2011.

This story originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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