Okawa Elementary School
The ruins of a school that was especially badly, and exceptionally tragically, hit by the 2011 tsunami
disaster in Japan
. 74 of its pupils (out of 75 for all of Japan) perished here. The entire village around it was washed away, only the ruins of the school remain. It has been preserved as memorial and is one of the most touching relics of this enormous tragedy in all of Japan.
More background info: The full story is covered in what is easily the most in-depth and emotionally gripping accounts of the 3/11 tsunami disaster in a book by the Japanese-based British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry entitled “Ghosts of the Tsunami”. I couldn't possibly, and won't attempt to, compete with this 250+ page account of this tragedy. Instead I refer you to that book. A shorter version of the story by the same author, but still classed as a “long read” can also be found online here (external link, opens in a new window) – but note that if you intend to read the book, this online article will be full of spoilers, so better make the decision for one or the other before reading the online article!
Here only the very briefest of summaries has to suffice:
Normally schools in Japan
are very safe places, and the sturdy buildings often serve as evacuation centres. The safety of schoolchildren is highly regulated and generally of exceptional standards. Normally. Okawa proved to be one massive exception. Out of the nearly 20,000 people who died in the 2011 disaster, only 75 were schoolchildren who had been in the care of their teachers at the time. 74 of those died here at Okawa. Something must have gone horribly wrong. What it was is still a matter of great controversy and even led to court cases. Apparently, the children were evacuated from the building immediately after the earthquake, but were then just left waiting, gathered in the schoolyard, while the teachers and others discussed what to do. When the warning of a tsunami
came, there seems to have been confusion and disagreement. What seems an obvious option, namely climbing the hill directly behind the school, over 200 metres high, and thus providing safely high ground, was not taken, even though a few of the kids suggested it, according to survivors' accounts. Instead some older men claimed that no tsunami would ever reach so far up the river to this inland location and anyway, the given evacuation plan for the school mandated that they go to a traffic island by the bridge across the river … somewhat higher ground, but not high enough as it turned out. But that was the place indicated in the school's manual and the instruction was heeded. It meant that the children were actually led towards the tsunami rolling in, funnelled up the riverbed, reaching 10, 12, 15 metres or even more in height. When some of the older kids realized what was happening, a couple of them quickly turned round and made a dash for the hill. They still were caught up by the rushing flood but a couple of them managed to fight their way to higher ground and survive. The remaining 74 and all but one teacher perished in the devilish flood. The entire surrounding village of Kamaya was washed away.
There were scores of adult casualties too, but the exceptional tragedy of Okawa Elementary School nonetheless stands out.
I actually read the book in preparation for my 2019 Japan trip, and most of that trip was already fully planned out at that stage. But when I came to the section in the book where it says that the ruins of Okawa school had been preserved as a memorial (in no small part thanks to the active campaigning by one of the survivor kids), I immediately looked into changing my plans so that I could include it in my itinerary. I had planned to be rather close, after all, with one night scheduled at the nearest large city, Sendai, following my tour of Fukushima
. So I first looked into hiring a car from Sendai, but that was made impossible by insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles. I even considered organizing a car with a driver from Sendai, which would have cost a fortune. But then I was given the tip that I could get a train to Ishinomaki, much closer to Okawa/Kamaya and just get a regular taxi from there. And this is what I ended up doing, also facilitated through the good offices of the director of the Ishinomaki Community & Info Center – see under Ishinomaki
And so I was able to make this pilgrimage. Having watched the awful scenes of the incoming tsunami
live on my computer screen at home at the time and having been so deeply shocked and moved by it, this was a really important addition to my Japan trip. It almost had something of catharsis for me personally. And of course I simply wanted to pay my respects to the victims of Okawa.
Naturally, when I got back home I then also had to add this chapter to my website's updated Japan
From first watching the coverage of the unfolding disaster at the time, reading the book, preparing to make this visit, finally getting there, and then finishing the writing of this chapter, has been one hell of an emotional journey. One of the most intense of my life. I hope this somehow shines through a bit, even though I tried to keep the remainder of this chapter rather sober and factually informative rather than emotive.
What there is to see: Once I had found out about this destination, I obviously also looked it up on the Web and saw images. But it was still special to finally arrive at the authentic place for real.
I was a bit surprised that I didn't have the place to myself, but there were several other visitors here, despite the remoteness. Those were all Japanese, though, my wife and I were the only foreigners.
Our taxi driver, even though he didn't speak any English, even acted as a kind of guide. Instead of just leaving us to it and waiting in the car, he accompanied us and made sure we saw everything from every angle. At no additional cost. It seemed to have been important to him that we'd get the most out of this visit. And that was OK, even though occasionally I felt a bit watched, and also slightly rushed.
First of all, I was able to pay my respect by laying the bunch of flowers we had bought in Ishinomaki
at the respective spot by a memorial shrine in front of the ruins. There were many more flowers left by others already, and also a few mementoes such as small toys and such like.
A few yards further on there's a statue of a small angel with big wings on a tall stone plinth. It looked pretty new to me. On the front of the plinth a plaque said simply “Angel of Hope” – in English. So I wonder if this has been a contribution from abroad. But there was no more information about it at the site.
We then walked further along the fence that rings the entire school. This also means you're not supposed to go inside the school, obviously. The fence wouldn't have been difficult to climb over, but it was clear that this is simply not the done thing here. And certainly not in the presence of other visitors. You get a few close-up insights, though. The lower floors of the school were rather open plan, so you could see empty blackboards, shelves and a few other objects as well as original wall decorations inside. Also to be seen inside were obvious additions of some shrine-like memorials, mementoes and the typical Japanese strings of colourful paper cranes (see Hiroshima
The broken down walls in some places gave an impression of the physical forces that had been at play here. It was also obvious that the upper floor would not have been a safe place, as even up there whole walls of concrete were ripped out by the tsunami
The very starkest piece of evidence of the tsunami's destructive power came further along: the semi-collapsed bridge of solid reinforced concrete that used to connect the upper floor of the main building with an annexe. It's now partly lying on its side, bent 90 degrees, like a twig of a tree that has been yanked out and thrown to the ground. A frightening and at the same time awesome sight to behold.
Towards the rear of the school, some building parts were completely flattened. And in the small amphitheatre the bandstand roof lay on its “face” as it were. The outer walls of the amphitheatre still sported kids' paintings, including a rendition of what the school looked like before the disaster destroyed it.
Behind the school you can see the bottom end of the path through the forest and up the hill that would have been the route to safety, but which was not taken (see above
). Ironically, there was a no-access sign by the side of the path (although that may only have applied to the little stone garden by the side, not the entire hill). Also behind the school on a grassy slope a sign indicated the height that the tsunami's waters reached – or at least that's what I think our driver tried to point out to us.
Along the perimeter of the school ruins are several info plaques, all in Japanese, but the images spoke for themselves. They featured shocking before-and-after pairings of photos, maps and aerial images of the whole village that's now completely gone, pictures from school festivities and happier village days …
Eventually we went back to the car and started our drive back to Ishinomaki
, none of us saying very much.
All in all I found it was a very worthwhile pilgrimage, despite the costs/difficulty of getting there. At least that is so if you know the story behind the site. Without that it may seem a bit too much effort/money for not exactly very much. But do read the book and I almost guarantee you too will want to go there!
in a remote part of northern Honshu, Japan
, ca. 15 miles (24 km) by road from Ishinomaki
, which itself is ca. 25 miles (40 km) from Sendai to the south-west and well over 200 miles (350 km) north of Tokyo
Access and costs: difficult to get to other than by car; free of charge as such, but transport for getting there can cost a lot.
Unless you have a vehicle at your disposal and are confident to drive in Japan
, it is tricky to get here. No public transport has resumed operating in this devastated corner of provincial Japan and is unlikely to be reintroduced any time soon, given that the village of Kamaya has not been, and most likely never will be, rebuilt. So the only option is to go there by taxi. Ishinomaki
is the closest place to go from – and the director at the Ishinomaki Community & Info Center (ICIC) can help arranging this (details
). And the ICIC is worth visiting anyway in this context.
The cost for the ride and back will be between 10,000 and 20,000 JPY, depending on traffic and on how long you want to linger at the site. The standard rate the taxi company I used charged for one hour was just under 12,000 JPY. At the end of our tour we had gone slightly over 60 minutes but thankfully the driver did not charge us for the extra time. Nor would he accept a tip. That's Japan for you!
If you're driving yourself, then take route 33 from Ishinomaki
heading north, and then route 30 heading north-east once you've come to the Kitakami River. This will lead you direct to the site, which you'll see on your right after clearing a steep hillside opposite a green steel bridge across the river.
There's a large car park across the road from the school memorial – and even a set of public toilets. There's no fee for admission or parking.
The site would be accessible at all time, but of course only daytime makes sense.
ca. 20 minutes to half an hour's drive each way from/to Ishinomaki
, plus between 15 and 45 minutes or so at the site itself.
Combinations with other dark destinations: There are a few further, smaller-scale memorials in the area, such as a set of stone monuments by the road just south of the school. One of the stones features an aerial photo of the village and school etched onto a shiny dark slab. A bit further down the road back to Ishinomaki you'll pass another new memorial park of some sort on your left. But we did not stop to inspect this.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The drive through the northern Honshu scenery is not without its appeal, but in the immediate environs of the school memorial there isn't anything beyond that.
- Okawa school 01 - seen from the main road
- Okawa school 02 - memorial and mementoes
- Okawa school 03 - shrine
- Okawa school 04 - statue
- Okawa school 05 - empty
- Okawa school 06 - peace stele outside
- Okawa school 07 - inside
- Okawa school 08 - evidence of the force of the tsunami
- Okawa school 09 - even upstairs would not have been safe
- Okawa school 10 - blooms
- Okawa school 11 - looking in
- Okawa school 12 - blackboards never to be used again
- Okawa school 13 - more redundant interiors
- Okawa school 14 - bicycles in the ex ladies toilet
- Okawa school 15 - collapsed bridge
- Okawa school 16 - tilted by the force of the water
- Okawa school 17 - end of the bridge
- Okawa school 18 - ripped away
- Okawa school 19 - boiler
- Okawa school 20 - stairs leading nowhere
- Okawa school 21 - off limits
- Okawa school 22 - old murals
- Okawa school 23 - depiction of the building before its destruction
- Okawa school 24 - hill behind the school grounds
- Okawa school 25 - path to safety not taken
- Okawa school 26 - ex-amphitheatre
- Okawa school 27 - collapse
- Okawa school 28 - looking back
- Okawa school 29 - mangled iron
- Okawa school 30 - pointing skywards
- Okawa school 31 - moving memorial amidst the disappeared village
- Okawa school 32 - basic facilities by the car park
- Okawa school 33 - nearby memorial stones by the roadside