Surrounded by new streets and buildings, the hollowed-out shell of the Okawa Elementary School is a haunting reminder of the tsunami in Japan ten years ago.
Shortly before 3 p.m. on March 11, 2011, when the students were in class, the tsunami warning sirens sounded after a strong earthquake of magnitude 9 at sea.
Instead of being evacuated to a higher level, they were instructed by the teachers to stay in the school yard for about 40 minutes.
They couldn’t escape when a black wall of water shot over everything on their way, carrying boats, buildings, trees, vehicles and helpless people with it.
Like a forty-foot battering ram, the ocean raced six miles inland at more than 400 miles an hour.
For those who had managed to climb tall buildings or climb nearby hills, it was a terrible sight.
Seventy-four children and ten school workers died in the school, all of whom could have been saved.
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Ten years after the tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people in Japan and injured thousands more, many families of the children who died at Okawa School are still grieving.
Next month, the destroyed school building will be officially converted into a permanent memorial to honor unnecessarily lost young lives.
A playground wall with hand-painted pictures that was engulfed in mud and debris when the sea tide swallowed entire cities is still standing.
The gutted classrooms I saw when I returned to the affected area in 2012 have been left exactly as they were dedicated to the children.
Yuto Naganuma, 26, lost his little brother when he was eight.
His grandmother and great-grandmother were also killed in the tsunami while waiting for his brother’s school bus.
“I lost my family,” he said, “my church. Things that built who I am. I felt the tsunami carve away half of my body.
“I feel like my brother didn’t have to die. If I had warned the people in the church, they might not have to die. I am full of regrets. I let the day come without doing anything. “
Sonomi Sato, 24, who lost her sister in school, said, “I want people across the country to know what happened under the supervision of the school in Okawa Elementary School.”
Today dignitaries and politicians will gather in the capital, Tokyo, to mark the moment of the disaster, which occurred on March 11, 2011 at 3 p.m. Japanese time.
Relatives gather for private prayer on the school grounds in Okawa, near the badly damaged city of Ishinomaki.
In 2014, the families with 23 children filed a lawsuit against the local authorities.
Last year the Supreme Court awarded them more than £ 9 million, recognizing that the tragedy could have been averted.
The school was about 1.5 m above sea level near a river. The city’s then hazard map did not indicate that it was in an area that could potentially be hit by a tsunami.
Meanwhile, thousands have still not been able to return to the homes they had to flee after the tsunami-triggered collapse of the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
In the hot evacuation zone around the affected facility – the site of the worst radioactive leak since Chernobyl – many cities remained deserted.
Some of those forced to flee with a few bags of their personal belongings have only recently returned after spending the past nine years with relatives or in temporary accommodation.
They are forced to live in new prefabricated houses near their previous homes, which are still unsafe due to exposure to radiation.
Many feel forgotten when Japan tries to move away from Fukushima.
The government is focused on holding the 2020 Olympics, which was postponed last year, although foreign viewers are not allowed to travel to Tokyo to watch the events.
“When I first went, I thought it would be two or three days,” said 69-year-old Hikaru Murai, who used to own a bar in Okuma near the power station.
“Firefighters came to my house and said I had to go. It wasn’t until I left that they told me that it was actually going to be closer to 10 years.
“I was forced in March 2011 when the tsunami happened. I’ve always hoped everyone would come back, but that will never happen now. “
Hikaru is allowed into his real home for a maximum of 30 days a year.
Another relative who will have difficulty getting through today’s memorials is Noriyuki Suzuki, whose daughter Mai, then 12 years old, died at Okawa School.
Later this month, Noriyuki will be attending the Tokyo Olympics torch relay.
begin in her honor in Fukushima.
“I want to run with Mai, not just myself,” he said. “I want to run here with all the kids.”
“The carnage I saw was heartbreaking”
– Commentary by Tom Parry
The apocalyptic scenes that I encountered ten years ago in the Japanese city of Kamaishi have left indelible marks.
It was a disaster film in which every normal, modern sight was turned upside down.
A car that had been swept off the wall of water several miles inland by a massive earthquake was wrapped around a high bridge over the river like a rubber band.
The houses were being uprooted from their foundations and turned back upside down, with roofs buried in the ground like axes, far from the streets they had been on before.
Heavy fishing trawlers and tall trees, torn from their roots and dragged in by the wave, had been thrown onto hollowed out and terribly twisted buildings.
The contents of people’s living rooms and bedrooms were randomly scattered over a vast sea of mud and debris from which corpses were being recovered.
Soldiers trampled through the thick gunge left by the black tsunami stream, picking up trash with metal poles to search for missing victims.
What hurt me the most were the toys that were dumped miles from where their child owners – many of whom had died – had been playing on the day of the disaster.
A decade later, Kamaishi and the many other endangered cities along Japan’s northeast coast are being protected from future tsunamis by an exceptional feat of civil engineering.
At a cost of nine billion pounds, the Japanese government funded a 250-mile dam to prevent a disaster like the one in 2011 from happening again.
The Great Wall of China, as it has come to be known, is more than 15 meters high in some places and provides an unprecedented barrier to the lake.
Japan is the most earthquake-prone country in the world, and its citizens are always on the alert for the next big country.
Some places like Taro on the Kamaishi coast have been wiped out several times by tsunamis.
The wall is Japan’s way of saying that it is no longer taking any chances.
The immense construction project has been going on for several years. Throughout the Tohoku area, there is a steady stream of heavy trucks hauling earth, sand, and materials for the wall.
However, many locals are unhappy and claim they feel like prisoners whose ugly, gray wall blocks their view of the sea.
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Houses that previously had great views over picturesque bays in one of Japan’s most pristine regions are now surrounded by eyesores.
If you want to walk along the bank, you have to pass the huge obstacle or climb a flight of stairs.
Despite objections, the Japanese government insists that the towering new wall is an essential replacement for the ineffective old sea barriers.
They say it would prevent the loss of as many lives and a £ 170 billion economic disaster as the one after March 11, 2011.
Then the people in taro climbed the old four-meter high wall to watch the wave. 180 died when the wave tore apart the sea defenses.
Meanwhile, other coastal towns and villages that were razed to the ground moved a little further from the sea, and the new homes were rebuilt on a higher level.
It is indisputable that the stoic national efforts to restore Japanese cities like Kamaishi were nothing short of a miracle.
The cleanup was amazing to see when I came back in 2012.
Today in many devastated places it is as if the tsunami never happened.