Nobiru village, Japan—
In Japan’s rigid education system, principals, teachers and students are supposed to follow official policy without question.
So when a huge earthquake shook Nobiru elementary school for three minutes on March 11, Michiko Kishima, the school’s principal, didn’t march everyone up the road to the hills behind her school. Instead, sticking to official instructions, she herded about 350 people into the government-designated evacuation site — the school’s gymnasium — where many would drown or freeze to death on a night of terror which continues to challenge educators set to restart classes this Thursday.
In a village of 800, where officials say police have identified at least 260 bodies, many are questioning not only official preparations and decisions, but Japan’s education system as a whole, which teaches people to obey orders without the type of independent thinking that could have saved many lives across northeastern Japan.
Yet others are praising the perseverance of Mrs. Kishima, 22 teachers, and about 70 heroic students whose quick thinking saved themselves and others during a 9-hour ordeal on March 11.
Interviewed in a municipal building where classes are set to begin on Thursday, Mrs. Kishima massages her swollen hands as she explains actions which the local Kahoku newspaper has questioned, a rarity in Japan, where educators are respected figures of authority.
“We didn’t think about fleeing up the mountain. We were prepared for aftershocks, not a tsunami,” says Mrs. Kishima, 54, who became principal three years ago. “If we had more information, we would have gone up the mountain road. But there was no information, so I had to follow official policy.”
When the quake hit at 2:46 pm on March 11, only about 70 students in grades 5 and 6 were still at school, preparing for a graduation ceremony, she says. Recalling news about the Christchurch, New Zealand quake trapping Japanese and other students in a collapsed school, Mrs. Kishima ushered her pupils down the stairs and safely outside the three-story building.
Gazing at the narrow mountain road only a few steps away, she worried about landslides, which often kill during quakes in Japan. During a series of severe aftershocks, Mrs. Kishima tried to keep the students calm and organized. “There was panic, kids yelling gya-gya-gya, wa-wa-wa-wa.” So she led students into the school’s gymnasium in a separate building on campus, about two miles from the sea behind a canal, train line and hills.
She didn’t think about the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia, which was far away. “I thought even if a tsunami came, it would only reach up to our shins,” she said, citing false alarms in the past.
Unable to use mobile phones or radio transmitters, she didn’t know what many around the world knew – that a monstrous tsunami was heading their way.
Within minutes, many residents, doing what they practiced during earthquake drills, drove from lowlands and even higher ground into the parking lot at sea level a few miles from the ocean. Mrs. Kishima urged them to come inside for safety. Doing as told, they filed onto the gym’s basketball court, joined by handicapped people in wheelchairs and students coming back to the school with their parents.
Preparing for a cold night without electricity, women began to set up cooking gear, and dutiful students put down exercise mats for seniors from a nearby nursing home.
When Yuki Ninomiya, 83, arrived from Tona village with friends by car, the gym was already packed. While many waited in warm cars, others, noticing tsunami warnings on car navigation systems, tried to get into the 3-story school. But the doors were locked, recalled several survivors.
As people ran toward campus to evade the rising waters, teachers rushed to unlock the school doors. “A man yelled ‘a tsunami’s coming. Get into the school quick!” said Mrs. Ninomiya, sitting in a cold evacuation center near Higashi-Matsushima city. “Everybody was rushing up the stairs saying ‘grandma, are you OK?’ I was the last one up, and the tsunami pushed me up the last steps to the third floor.”
Out the window, she watched young men and women throw a rope to rescue an elderly lady and her dog from the swirling black waters.
Below in the crowded gym, Mrs. Kishima saw her car and others floating in the waters. “It’s a tsunami. Climb onto the stage! Climb onto the stage!” she hollered into a microphone. Submerged to chest level, she dropped a heavy bag full of keys. A student pulled her up onto the stage, as others ran up stairs in the corners of the gym to a second level called “The Gallery.” “I was saved, and then I saved somebody,” says Mrs. Kishima. “Everybody did like that.”
Using newly-purchased stage curtains and graduation ceremony banners, students and teachers pulled up people floating on mats or struggling in the churning waters and debris. With no room to move, about 330 people, according to Mrs. Kishima and other staff, crammed into the narrow gallery spaces, just above the lapping waters.
Amid aftershocks for the next 9 hours, they stood shivering in wet clothes in total darkness, with no room to even sit down, as the water and debris remained just below the gallery. “The kids were so scared, but they stayed organized.” She said they were chanting “Nobiru-sho gambare – Nobiru students, fight on!”, “and “massage each other for warmth!” and “let’s pray.”
Mrs. Kishima says she saw at least 12 senior citizens drown, and others may have been swept outside the gym. At least 8 other seniors died of hypothermia next to the kids on the gallery in subzero temperatures, she said. She says that all her school’s staff and students in the gym survived, though nine who went home with parents that afternoon are dead or missing.
“When people died around them, the kids said ‘have a good sleep’, and ‘gomen ne –I’m sorry’. They were very good kids.”
The water only began to recede at 10:30 pm that night. Rescuers struggled to get through the debris of cars and pulverized buildings. On a make-shift bridge of wood, they worked well past midnight carrying out babies, mothers, wounded, students, elders, adults and staff, in that order. At last, survivors limped up the road that would have spared them the ordeal in the first place.
Two days later, the gym’s muddy floor became a morgue for survivors to identify more than 100 bodies of relatives and friends, according to local media reports.
Takashi Takayama, 55, a senior official at Higashi-Matsushima city hall, which oversees Nobiru village, says it’s not clear how many people died in the gym, and officials are too busy securing food, water and shelter for survivors to investigate. He defended Mrs. Kishima’s actions, saying they were all following a 2008 evacuation plan based on a Tohoku University “hazard map”, indicating Nobiru elementary school would be outside a tsunami’s reach.
Asked if the official policy was wrong, vice-principal Yoshiki Sugawara, exhausted from sleeping in shelters, says, “No. The problem was, the tsunami was too high.”
Upon returning to the disaster zone, Mrs. Kishima says she was disgusted to see the dilapidated gym still reeking of death, and she wants officials to clean it up quickly, though the new school should be built elsewhere. “It’s a shock for all of us, and we are all traumatized. It was terrible for kids to experience such a life and death event. We are going to have to take care of their hearts, not just teaching them reading or writing.”
She hopes counselors will come to help the 160 students and 22 teachers, who are turning the third floor of a municipal building into their school for at least the next 6 months. “But we are the only ones, really, who know what the kids have been through. They will have flashbacks and bad memories for months, and me also.”
Decorating the halls with cute pictures of bunnies and bears, Yumi Kondo, a school nurse, says a “school” can be anyplace where there is a “school atmosphere”. “If we put in desks and decorations, it feels like a school. We want kids to have a normal life rhythm: meeting friends, studying, and doing homework. It doesn’t matter where they do it. We can do it.”
As student Urara Ninomiya says in a shelter, “I just want to see the smiling faces of my friends again, just like before.”