The long read: In 2011 a tsunami engulfed Japans north-east coast. More than 18,000 people were killed. Six years later, in one community, survivors are still tormented by a catastrophic split-second decision
The earthquake that struck Japan on Friday 11 March 2011 was the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth six and a half inches off its axis; it moved Japan four metres closer to America. In the tsunami that followed, more than 18,000 people were killed. At its peak, the water was 40 metres high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the worlds worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210bn of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.
Pain and anxiety proliferated in ways that are still difficult to measure, even among people remote from the destructive events. Farmers, suddenly unable to sell their produce, killed themselves. Blameless workers in electricity companies found themselves the object of abuse and discrimination. A generalised dread took hold, the fear of an invisible poison spread through air, through water even, it was said, through mothers milk.
Those who work in zones of war and disaster acquire, after a time, the knack of detachment. This is professional necessity: no doctor, aid worker or reporter can do his job if he is crushed by the spectacle of death and suffering. The trick is to preserve compassion without bearing each individual tragedy as your own; and as a foreign correspondent and sometime war reporter, I had mastered this technique. I knew the facts of what had happened, and I knew they were appalling. But at my core, I was not appalled.
All at once something we could only have imagined was upon us and we could still only imagine it, the journalist Philip Gourevitch once wrote. That is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.
The events that constituted the disaster were so diverse, and so vast in their implications, that I never felt that I was doing the story justice. In the weeks afterwards, I felt wonder, pity and sadness. But for much of the time I experienced a numb detachment, and the troubling sense of having completely missed the point.
It was quite late on, the summer after the tsunami, when I heard about a small community on the coast that had suffered an exceptional tragedy. Its name was Okawa; it lay in a forgotten fold of Japan, below hills and among rice fields. In the years that followed, I encountered many survivors and stories of the tsunami, but it was to Okawa that I returned time and again. And it was there, at the school, that I eventually became able to imagine.
Okawa elementary school was more than 200 miles north of Tokyo in a village called Kamaya, which stands on the bank of a great river, the Kitakami, two miles inland of the point where it flows into the Pacific Ocean. In ancient times, this region of Japan, known as Thoku, was a notorious frontier realm of barbarians, goblins and bitter cold. Even today, it remains a remote, marginal, faintly melancholy place, the symbol of a rural tradition that, for city-dwellers, is no more than a folk memory.
One of the pupils at Okawa elementary, Tetsuya Tadano, was a stocky boy of 11, with close-cropped hair and an air of mild, amused mischief. Every morning he made the 20-minute walk from his house to school with his nine-year-old sister, Mina, along the embankment of the river. On the day of the earthquake, it was the 40th birthday of their mother, Shiroe; a small celebration was planned at home that evening. But otherwise it was an unremarkable Friday afternoon.
At lunchtime, the children rode on unicycles in the courtyard and foraged for four-leafed clovers. It was cold, and a piercing wind came off the river Tetsuya and his friends stood in a row with their hands in their pockets, and turned their backs on it to keep the chill off their faces.
Lessons at Okawa elementary school finished at 2.30pm. At 2.45pm, the school bus was waiting in the car park with its engine running; a few of the younger pupils had already climbed in. But most of the children were still in their classrooms, finishing up the last school business of the week. A minute later, the sixth-year class were singing Happy Birthday to one of their number, a girl named Manno. It was in the middle of this song that the earthquake struck.
The room was shaking very slowly from side to side, said Soma Sato, one of the sixth-year boys. They werent small, fast shakes it felt gigantic. The teachers were running up and down, saying, Hold on to your desks.
In the library, a man named Shinichi Suzukiwas waiting for his son, who was in the sick room, having being taken ill earlier in the day. Hewatched as the water in the school fish tank slopped over its sides in waves. In Tetsuyas class, the fifth year were getting ready to go home for the day. When the earthquake first hit, we all took cover under our desks, he said. As the shaking got stronger, everyone was saying things like, Whoa! This is big. You OK? When it stopped, the teacher said, right away: Follow me outside. So we all put on our helmets and went out.
The school building was evacuated with exemplary speed. Scarcely five minutes after they had been crouching under their desks, the children were in the playground, lined up by class, wearing the hard plastic helmets that were stored in each childs locker.
Much later, the city authorities would compile a minute- by-minute log of the events of that afternoon, based on interviews with surviving witnesses. It conveys something of the atmosphere after a big earthquake, of excitement and resignation, light-heartedness and dread:
Child: Everyone sat down and the register was taken. The lower-grade girls were crying, and Miss Shirota and Miss Konno were stroking their heads and saying, Its fine. One of the sixth-grade boys was saying, I wonder if my game console at home is OK.
Child: It must have been a kind of earthquake sickness, because there were little kids throwing up.
Child: My friend said: I wonder if therell be a tsunami.
The alarm of the younger children was renewed by repeated, jolting aftershocks. At 2.49pm, while the vibrations of the mother quake were still jangling outwards across northern and eastern Japan, the Meteorological Agency issued a warning: a six metre-high tsunami was expected; everyone on the coast of north-east Japan should evacuate to higher ground.
There were more aftershocks at 3.03pm, at 3.06pm and at 3.12pm. At 3.14pm, the Meteorological Agency updated its warning: the tsunami was expected to come in at a height of 10 metres. The teachers in the playground formed a huddle beneath the cherry trees and engaged in a discussion in low voices.
Like many Japanese institutions, the operations of Okawa elementary school were governed by a manual. The Education Plan, as it was called, covered everything from ethical principles to the protocol for graduation ceremonies. One section was devoted to emergencies, including fire, flood and epidemic.
The Education Plan was based on a national template, which was adjusted according to the circumstances of each school. Immediately after the earthquake, in the villages by the sea, teachers and children were following instructions to ascend up steep paths and cliff steps. At Okawa, the deputy headmaster, Toshiya Ishizaka, had been responsible for revising the Education Plan, but he had left unchanged the generic wording of the template.
As Ishizaka stood in the playground, he found only these vague words to puzzle over: Primary evacuation place: school grounds. Secondary evacuation place, in case of tsunami: vacant land near school, or park, etc.
The vagueness of this language was unhelpful. The reference to park, etc made little sense out here in the countryside, where there were fields and hills, but no parks as such. As for vacant land, there was an abundance of that the question was: where?
There was an obvious place of safety. The school was immediately in front of a forested hill, 220 metres high at its highest point. Until a few years ago, the children had gone up there as part of their science lessons, to cultivate a patch of shiitake mushrooms. This was a climb that the smallest among the children could have easily managed. Within five minutes the time it had taken them to evacuate their classrooms the entire school could have ascended high above sea level, beyond the reach of any conceivable tsunami.
One senior teacher, Junji Endo, later recalled one brief conversation with Ishizaka, after checking for stragglers inside the school. I asked: What should we do? Should we run to the hill? I was told that it was impossible with the shaking.
But one of the survivors from the sixth year recalled a much more dramatic intervention. Endo, she said, had emerged from the school, calling out loudly, To the hill! The hill! Run to the hill!
His alarm was picked up by one of the students, Daisuke Konno, and his friend, Yuki Sato, who made their own appeals to their sixth-year teacher, Takashi Sasaki: We should climb the hill, sir. If we stay here, the ground might split open and swallow us up. Well die if we stay here!
The boys began to run in the direction of the mushroom patch. But Endo was overruled, the boys were ordered to come back and shut up, and they returned obediently to their class.
Two distinct groups of people were beginning to gather at the school. The first were parents and grandparents, arriving by car and on foot to pick up children. The second were local people from the village to complicate matters further, Okawa elementary was itself designated an official place of evacuation for the village of Kamaya. And a drastic difference of opinion, verging at times on open conflict, was manifesting itself in the attitudes of the two groups.
The parents, by and large, wanted to get their children out and away as soon as possible. From the education boards log:
Child: My mum came to pick me up, and we told Mr Takashi that I was going home. We were told, Its dangerous to go home now, so better stay in the school.
Parent: I told Mr Takashi, The radio says that theres a 10-metre tsunami coming. I said, Run up the hill! and pointed to the hill. I was told, Calm down, maam.
The local people, by and large, wanted to stay put. Most of the parents who came to the school were full-time mothers and housewives; most of the villagers offering their opinions were retired, elderly and male. It was another enactment of the ancient dialogue, its lines written centuries ago, between the entreating voices of women, and the oblivious, overbearing dismissiveness of old men.
When the earthquake struck, Toshinobu Oikawa a grey-suited man in his late 50s who worked in the local branch of the Ishinomaki town government was in his office, not far from Okawa elementary school. Within five minutes, the first tsunami warning was received from the Meteorological Agency. Within 15 minutes, Oikawa and five of his colleagues were climbing into three cars mounted with rooftop speakers of their own, and setting out to deliver the warning in person.
They were driving through the outer margins of Kamaya when Oikawa became aware of something extraordinary taking place two miles ahead of them, at the point where the sea met the land. The place was Matsubara, the spit of fields and sand where a ribbon of pine forest grew alongside the beach. The trees were a century old. Many of them were around 20 metres high. And now, as Oikawa watched, the sea was overwhelming them, swallowing up their pointed green peaks and tearing up the forest in a frothing surge.
I could see the white of the wave, foaming over the top of the trees, he said. It was coming down over them like a waterfall. And there were cars coming in the other direction, and the drivers were shouting at us: The tsunami is coming. Get out! Get out! So immediately we made a U-turn and went back the way wed come.
Within seconds they were driving through Kamaya again. More aftershocks were taking place. But it was as if the entire village had fallen under a spell. One of Oikawas colleagues was shouting through the cars loudspeaker: A super-tsunami has reached Matsubara. Evacuate! Evacuate to higher ground!
There were seven or eight people standing around the street, chatting, Oikawa remembered. They paid us no attention. I saw the patrol car parked in front of the village police box. But the policeman wasnt passing on the warning, and he wasnt trying to escape, either. We passed the school. We were driving fast, we didnt stop, and we couldnt clearly see the playground. But they must have heard our message too. The school bus was just standing there.
In Kamaya, people were doing what they always did after an earthquake: tidying up. Among them was a farmer in his 60s named Waichi Nagano, who lived in a big house out in the fields. I heard all the warnings, he said. There was the loudspeaker car from the town hall going up and down, saying, Super-tsunami imminent: evacuate, evacuate! There were a lot of sirens, too. Everyone in the village must have heard them. But we didnt take it seriously.
In the playground, the children were becoming restless. A mood of bored resignation had established itself. It was cold. People shared blankets and hand-warmers. There was no sense of anything much happening, or that anything was likely to happen very soon.
At 3.25pm Oikawa and the three loudspeaker vans drove past, blaring their desperate warning. In the school playground, the teachers were preparing to burn wood in oil drums to keep the children warm.
At 3.30pm, an elderly man named Kazuo Takahashi fled his home next to the river. He too had ignored the warnings, until he became abruptly aware of the sea streaming over the embankment beside his house. It seemed to be coming from below the earth, as well as across it: metal manhole covers in the road were being lifted upwards by rising water; mud was oozing up between the cracks that the earthquake had opened in the road.
Takahashi directed his car towards the closest place of evacuation, the hill behind the school. On the main street of Kamaya he saw friends and acquaintances standing and chatting. He rolled down his window and called to them, Theres a tsunami coming. Get out! He passed his cousin and his wife and delivered the same warning. They waved, smiled and ignored him.
Takahashi parked his car next to the school. As he climbed out and made for the hill, he became aware of a large number of children issuing forth from the school in a hurry.
Among them was Tetsuya Tadano, who had remained in the playground with his class. Mr Ishizaka, the deputy head, was absent from the playground. He reappeared suddenly. A tsunami seems to be coming, he called. Quickly. Were going to the traffic island. Get into line, and dont run.
Tetsuya and his friend Daisuke Konno were at the front of the group. The traffic island was less than 400 metres away, just outside the village, at the point where the road met the New Kitakami Great Bridge. It was as he approached this junction that he saw a black mass of water rushing along the main road ahead of him.