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 world’s 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 their job if they are 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 Tōhoku, 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 weren’t 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 Tetsuya’s 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 child’s 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, “It’s 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 there’ll 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. We’ll 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 board’s log:
Child: My mum came to pick me up, and we told Mr Takashi that I was going home. We were told, “It’s dangerous to go home now, so better stay in the school.”
Parent: I told Mr Takashi, “The radio says that there’s a 10-metre tsunami coming.” I said, “Run up the hill!” and pointed to the hill. I was told, “Calm down, ma’am.”
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 we’d 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 Oikawa’s colleagues was shouting through the car’s 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 wasn’t passing on the warning, and he wasn’t trying to escape, either. We passed the school. We were driving fast, we didn’t stop, and we couldn’t 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 didn’t 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, “There’s 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. We’re going to the traffic island. Get into line, and don’t 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.
Barely a minute had passed since he had left the playground. He was conscious of a roaring sound, and a sheet of white spray above the black. It was streaming in from the river, the direction in which the children had been ordered to move.
Some of those at the front of the line froze in the face of the wave. Others, including Tetsuya and Daisuke, turned at once and ran back the way they had come. The rest of the children were continuing to hurry towards the main road; the little ones towards the back were visibly puzzled by the sight of the older children pelting in the opposite direction.
Soon, Tetsuya and Daisuke found themselves at the foot of the hill, at the steepest and most thickly forested section of the slope. At some point, Tetsuya became aware that Daisuke had fallen, and he tried, and failed, to pull his friend up. Then Tetsuya was scrambling up the hill. As he did so, he looked back over his shoulder and saw the darkness of the tsunami rising behind him. Soon it was at his feet, his calves, his buttocks, his back.
“It felt like the huge force of gravity when it hit me,” he said. “It was as if someone with great strength was pushing. I couldn’t breathe, I was struggling for breath.” He became aware of a rock and a tree, and found himself trapped between them, with the water rising about him.
Then darkness overcame him.
Everyone who experienced the tsunamisaw, heard and smelled something subtly different. Much depended upon where you were, and the obstacles that the water had to overcome to reach you. Some described a waterfall, cascading over sea wall and embankment. For others, it was a fast-rising flood between houses, deceptively slight at first, tugging trippingly at the feet and ankles, but quickly sucking and battering at legs and chests and shoulders. In colour, it was described as brown, grey, black, white.
The one thing it did not resemble in the least was a conventional ocean wave, the wave from the famous woodblock print by Hokusai: blue-green and cresting elegantly in tentacles of foam. The tsunami was a thing of a different order: darker, stranger, massively more powerful and violent, without kindness or cruelty, beauty or ugliness, wholly alien. It was the sea coming on to land, the ocean itself picking up its feet and charging at you with a roar in its throat.
It stank of brine, mud and seaweed. Most disturbing of all were the sounds it generated as it collided with, and digested, the stuff of the human world: the crunch and squeal of wood and concrete, metal and tile. In places, a mysterious dust billowed above it, like the cloud of pulverised matter that floats above a demolished building. It was as if neighbourhoods, villages, whole towns were being placed inside the jaws of a giant compressor and crushed.
From the hillside that overlooked Kamaya, where they had narrowly escaped to safety, Waichi Nagano and his wife, Hideko, could see the whole scene spread out below them, as the water swept in pulsing surges over the embankment and across the village and the fields. “It was a huge black mountain of water, which came on all at once and destroyed the houses,” he said. “It was like a solid thing. And there was this strange sound, difficult to describe. It wasn’t like the sound of the sea. It was more like the roaring of the earth, mixed with a kind of crumpling, groaning noise, which was the houses breaking up.”
There was another fainter noise. “It was the voices of children,” said Hideko. “They were crying out – ‘Help! Help!’” On the hill above, where he had half-climbed, half-floated to safety, Kazuo Takahashi heard them, too. “I heard children,” he said. “But the water was swirling round, there was the crunching sound of the wave and the rubble, and their voices became weaker and weaker.”
Tetsuya Tadano came to on the hill, blinded by mud and with the roar of the tsunami in his ears. His limbs were immobilised by spars of debris and by something else – something wriggling and alive, which was shifting its weight on top of him. It was Kohei Takahashi, Tetsuya’s friend and fifth-year classmate. Kohei’s life had been saved by a household refrigerator. It had floated past with its door open as he thrashed in the water, and he had squirmed into it, ridden it like a boat and been dumped by it on his schoolmate’s back.
“Help! I’m underneath you,” Tetsuya cried. Kohei tugged him free. Standing on the steep slope, the two boys beheld the scene below.
Beyond Kamaya had been a succession of hamlets, and beyond them fields, low hills, the swaying curve of the river and finally the Pacific Ocean. After the tsunami, the village, the hamlets, the fields and everything else between here and the sea was gone.
Tetsuya’s first thought was that he and his friend were already dead. He took the raging water to be the River of Three Crossings, the Japanese equivalent of the River Styx. Those who have led good lives cross the river safely by bridge; evil-doers must take their chances in the dragon-ridden waters. Innocent children, being neither sinful nor virtuous, rely on a kindly Buddha to make their passage, and to protect them from the depredations of hags and demons.
“I thought I’d died,” Tetsuya said. “Dead … the River of Three Crossings. But then there was the New Kitakami Great Bridge, and the traffic island. And so I thought this might be Kamaya after all.”
The water, which had receded, began to surge up the hill again. The two boys tottered up the slope. Tetsuya’s face was black and bruised. In the churn of the tsunami, the ill-fitting plastic helmet that he wore had twisted on its strap and dug brutally against his eyes. His vision was affected for weeks; he could only dimly make out what was going on in the water below.
Kohei’s left wrist was broken and his skin was punctured by thorns, but his vision was unaffected. Whatever was visible of the fate of his school and his schoolmates, he saw it. He would never talk publicly about it.
Only later would the full scale of the tragedy at Okawa elementary school become clear. The school had 108 children. Of the 78 who were there at the moment of the tsunami, 74 of them, and 10 out of the 11 teachers, had died.
Later, many of the children’s parentswere tormented by self-reproach for not rushing to the school to collect them. But far from being neglectful or lazy, they had followed the course of action that, in every other circumstance, would have been most likely to secure their safety and survival. Nowhere in Japan are precautions against natural disaster more robust than in state schools. On 11 March 2011, out of 18,000 people killed by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, only 75 were children in the care of their teachers. All but one were at Okawa elementary school.
Katsura Sato’s daughter Mizuho was one of the children killed at Okawa. “After the cremation – well, I’m usually healthy, but I became ill,” Katsura said. “I couldn’t get up. I stayed in bed for three days. And I started thinking and thinking, and I became very suspicious about the circumstances in which we lost our daughter. I knew that this was a great natural disaster, and I assumed at the beginning that there must have been many other cases like this, other schools where the same thing happened. But why did I never hear of them?” In the nearby villages along the river, as they began to catch their breath in the weeks following the disaster, other parents were asking the same question.
The revelation of the truth about what had happened was itself the opposite of a tsunami. There was no grand climax, no crashing wave or rumbling of the earth. The facts came out in trickles and drips, some falling naturally, some squeezed out by wringing hands. The stray words of a surviving child, revealing an unrecognised failure. A document exposing contradictions in the official account. The official account itself, wobbling and bending. Every few months there was a new “explanatory meeting”, at which the bureaucrats of the Ishinomaki Education Board submitted themselves to the anger of the parents. Reluctantly and with trepidation, people came forward to tell their stories.
The imperviousness of the city officials, their refusal to muster a human response to the grief of the families, seemed at the beginning to be a collective failure of character, and of leadership. But as time passed, the parents began to suspect another motivation – an obsession with avoiding anything that could be taken as an admission of liability. The metallic tang of lawyerly advice lingered around many of the bureaucrats’ utterances. They were happy to express grief and condolence, and willing to abase themselves in general terms for their unworthiness. But to acknowledge specific negligence on the part of individuals, or systematic, institutional failure – that was a step no one would take.
Twenty-three months after the tsunami, the Ishinomaki city government announced the establishment of something called the Okawa elementary school incident verification committee, which would spend a year reviewing documents and conducting interviews. Its findings were published in a 200-page report in February 2014.
The earthquake and tsunami
The magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck at 2:46 pm. (The early estimate of magnitude 8.9 was later revised upward.) The epicentre was located some 80 miles (130 km) east of the city of Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, and the focus occurred at a depth of 18.6 miles (about 30 km) below the floor of the western Pacific Ocean. The earthquake was caused by the rupture of a stretch of the subduction zone associated with the Japan Trench, which separates the Eurasian Plate from the subducting Pacific Plate. (Some geologists argue that this portion of the Eurasian Plate is actually a fragment of the North American Plate called the Okhotsk microplate.) A part of the subduction zone measuring approximately 190 miles (300 km) long by 95 miles (150 km) wide lurched as much as 164 feet (50 metres) to the east-southeast and thrust upward about 33 feet (10 metres). The March 11 temblor was felt as far away as Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia; Kao-hsiung, Taiwan; and Beijing, China. It was preceded by several foreshocks, including a magnitude-7.2 event centred approximately 25 miles (40 km) away from the epicentre of the main quake. Hundreds of aftershocks, dozens of magnitude 6.0 or greater and two of magnitude 7.0 or greater, followed in the days and weeks after the main quake. (Nearly two years later, on December 7, 2012, a magnitude-7.3 tremor originated from the same plate boundary region. The quake caused no injuries and little damage.) The March 11, 2011, earthquake was the strongest to strike the region since the beginning of record keeping in the late 19th century, and it is considered one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded. It was later reported that a satellite orbiting at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere that day had detected infrasonics (very low-frequency sound waves) from the quake.
The sudden horizontal and vertical thrusting of the Pacific Plate, which has been slowly advancing under the Eurasian Plate near Japan, displaced the water above and spawned a series of highly destructive tsunami waves. A wave measuring some 33 feet high inundated the coast and flooded parts of the city of Sendai, including its airport and the surrounding countryside. According to some reports, one wave penetrated some 6 miles (10 km) inland after causing the Natori River, which separates Sendai from the city of Natori to the south, to overflow. Damaging tsunami waves struck the coasts of Iwate prefecture, just north of Miyagi prefecture, and Fukushima, Ibaraki, and Chiba, the prefectures extending along the Pacific coast south of Miyagi. In addition to Sendai, other communities hard-hit by the tsunami included Kamaishi and Miyako in Iwate; Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, and Shiogama in Miyagi; and Kitaibaraki and Hitachinaka in Ibaraki. As the floodwaters retreated back to the sea, they carried with them enormous quantities of debris, as well as thousands of victims caught in the deluge. Large stretches of land were left submerged under seawater, particularly in lower-lying areas.
The earthquake triggered tsunami warnings throughout the Pacific basin. The tsunami raced outward from the epicentre at speeds that approached about 500 miles (800 km) per hour. It generated waves 11 to 12 feet (3.3 to 3.6 metres) high along the coasts of Kauai and Hawaii in the Hawaiian Islands chain and 5-foot (1.5-metre) waves along the island of Shemya in the Aleutian Islands chain. Several hours later 9-foot (2.7-metre) tsunami waves struck the coasts of California and Oregon in North America. Finally, some 18 hours after the quake, waves roughly 1 foot (0.3 metre) high reached the coast of Antarctica and caused a portion of the Sulzberger Ice Shelf to break off its outer edge.