ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi — Tetsuya Tadano was a fifth-grade student when the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake hit, triggering a huge tsunami that engulfed his school. Now 22, he has formed a network to reflect on the future of the school and the development of his hometown following its disaster recovery.
Elegantly dressed in a suit with three friends by his side, Tadano held a microphone and announced the establishment of “Team Okawa Mirai o Hiraku (open the future) Network” during a February 13 meeting held in Ishinomaki, prefecture. from Miyagi.
The former Okawa Municipal Elementary School was near the Kitakami River. Pupils, including Tadano and teachers, had gathered in the schoolyard after the earthquake and were going to the foot of a bridge to evacuate when they were hit by the tsunami which claimed the life of 74 of the school’s 108 students.
The 34 survivors included students who were picked up by their parents or absent that day, but Tadano is one of four who were there at the time and survived. He was the only one to respond to press interviews immediately after the earthquake.
The boy was loved by people around him because of his cheerful personality, but he started avoiding media interviews about two years ago, struggling with how the media portrayed him as a ‘miracle boy’. who survived the disaster. Speaking of the sense of challenge that had built up in him, Tadano said: “My friends, who were better than me (in school), got caught up in the tsunami, and I happened to survive. ..”
Tadano lost his younger sister, who was in third grade, along with his mother and grandfather, and his house was swept away. Acting bravely, the boy took interviews right after the disaster to recount what he had seen. However, Tadano recalled that he couldn’t believe his family suddenly disappeared and he couldn’t even cry at the time.
On the other hand, while sharing a sense of grief, there was a difference in the positions of bereaved families depending on the situations they faced – for example, some parents had lost all their children while others continued to search for their missing kids. Some called for an investigation into the evacuation process, while others just wanted to be left alone.
Parents and guardians became increasingly concerned when they saw their children acting as if they had sealed off their emotions. When a support team began organizing study sessions at a community center and meeting place for people in temporary accommodation, 13 disaster-affected elementary and middle school students, including those who lost their brothers and sisters, gathered together. Among them, Tadano was the youngest.
“As it reminds me of when I was caught in the tsunami, I find it hard to share my story. But I also speak for the sake of my friends who have passed away, because I don’t want the same happen again,” he said.
It was a struggle for Tadano to convey the angst he felt inside. While still in elementary school, a classmate taunted him, saying, “Well, you’re good at interviews. Tadano was shocked when he was told by others that there were people among the bereaved families who thought he just wanted to stand out.
It was an informal conversation with members of a child support team from a Sendai city nonprofit that relieved Tadano of that burden. In discussions about whether to preserve or dismantle the Okawa Elementary School building, he was able to take action that would lead to results.
When Tadano was in his second year of middle school in 2013, he called for the preservation of school buildings at a meeting held in Tokyo. Along with members of what was called the “Okawa team,” Tadano shared his thoughts on preserving the school in Sendai, Tokyo and elsewhere, gradually gaining sympathy from people.
In 2015, a community gathering was organized to gather residents’ opinions on whether to maintain or dismantle the school. During the event, Tadano said, “The school building gives a stronger impression than any text or video. If removed, memories of the lives of our friends and members of community will fade.” The majority agreed to preserve the building, and this was the deciding factor when the municipal government of Ishinomaki chose to keep the facility.
Team Okawa’s call has been heard by the people and the authorities. But when members began to complete their studies and move on to higher education, the group’s activity all but came to a standstill. Perhaps from this time, Tadano began to feel increasingly uncomfortable about his portrayal in the media.
(Japanese original by Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Office)
(This is part 1 of a two part series)