Japan kindergarten remembers child who is "not here today"

By Paul Eckert

KESENNUMA, Japan (Reuters) – At a somber ceremony on Monday, 50 six-year-old kindergarten graduates, most wearing navy blue uniforms, bowed in unison to their teachers and to a small audience of parents.

But the ritual passing out from kindergarten to first grade should have been for 51 children.

Handing out embossed red diplomas to the 27 boys and 23 girls present, Junichi Onodera, principal at the private Ashinome Kindergarten in the fishing port of Kesennuma, asked them to honor the one classmate who “could not make it today.”

“A friend who played with you and ate snacks with you and practiced spelling with you and who sang on the stage with you in the school recital is not here today,” he said.

“You must forever remember that friend.”

Most of the graduates and 89 younger pupils at the kindergarten had finished class at 2 pm on Friday, March 11, and were waiting for the bus at their school on a hill above the fishing port of Kesennuma.

That half-hour wait probably saved their lives as a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck, triggering a tsunami and fires that turned the town below into a charred wasteland of smashed homes and stranded ships.

One child who left promptly at 2 pm in the family car has not been heard from since, said Onodera.

The principal, 61, declined to name the child.

“One of the students is missing and even today the mother is searching around in the belief her child survived, so I absolutely did not say the child is dead,” Onodera told Reuters.

“Instead, I said only that the child could not make it today.”

Four of the children who graduated on Monday had parents who are unaccounted for 17 days after the tsunami.

COMFORT IN RITUAL

Onodera said that holding the ceremony amid the destruction and despair in Kesennuma was the right thing to do in a country that places high importance on comforting rituals and routines.

“In Japan, entering into elementary school is an important rite of passage for a child’s growth and for the parents,” he said. “Not conducting a proper graduation ceremony would leave a feeling of anguish that will never quite go away.”

Parents attending the graduation said it was a rare bright spot in lives that went dark on March 11.

“With one child and some parents still missing, this graduation ceremony is equal parts celebration and sorrow,” said Yasushi Tsubota, 41, whose 6-year-old son was among those graduating.

(Reporting by Paul Eckert, Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Japan kindergarten remembers child who is "not here today"