No graduation at Japanese school after tsunami deaths

By David Dolan

ISHINOMAKI CITY, Japan (Reuters) – Teruyuki Kashiba, principal of Okawa elementary school in northeast Japan, should have been celebrating the end of the academic year on Tuesday with a closing ceremony and a graduation for departing sixth-grade students.

Instead, he is dressed in black to mourn the loss of most of his students and teachers to the March 11 tsunami that uprooted trees, ripped away parts of a massive steel bridge and left the school in a ruin of dust and rubble.

Of the 108 children enrolled at Okawa, 74 are dead or missing. Among the graduating class of 21 only five survived and only three of the school’s 13 teachers are left.

“I told the children today that although many of their friends have lost their lives or are missing, everyone here should work together and do their best,” he told reporters on Tuesday after meeting most of the surviving children.

The students assembled for the first time since the tsunami struck shortly after the end of school on a Friday afternoon, washing away almost all but those who went straight home.

The quake and tsunami left more than 28,000 people dead or missing in communities along the northeast coast.

There will be no closing ceremony at the Okawa elementary school this year, and no graduation, out of respect for the parents who lost their children. It would not be fair for them to see other students bringing home diplomas, Kashiba said.

School will begin again in late April, but the board of education has yet to decide at which of the other neighborhood schools Okawa teachers will borrow some classrooms.

Kashiba met students at an elementary school several kilometers away, which was not in the tsunami’s path. The windows there were adorned with a single letter spelling out simple messages that could be seen from well beyond the school: “Please cooperate” and “Let’s overcome.”

BORN AND RAISED

“I was born and raised right over there,” said 64-year-old Tetsuya Takeyama, nodding in the direction of the shell of Okawa elementary.

Takeyama now lives about 20 km (12 miles) away, but came back to see the wreckage of his home town. As he looked on, some workers poked through rubble left by the tsunami with long poles, while others used cranes and bulldozers to clear debris.

Not far away, police and members of Japan’s self-defense force were pumping water out of rice fields that had been turned into a lake by the tsunami. Houses were nearly fully submerged and a traditional thatched roof floated on the water.

The tsunami threw up the most unlikely debris, depositing a rowboat smack in the middle of a twisted bridge and leaving dead cows on the banks of a river.

“You can’t even describe it. I didn’t think anything like this could ever happen,” said Shigeo Sugawara, a 75-year-old farmer who looked on at the wreckage with his wife.

But workers are beginning to make headway into the rubble. Where a road was closed, a temporary one was made with metal sheets across a dirt path, allowing construction equipment to cross: a testament to both Japanese ingenuity and hard work.

The inner walls of the school and their blackboards were largely intact. Workers have collected most of the children’s belongings from inside and around the school, sorting them into plastic baskets: trophies, photo albums, notebooks and pencil cases.

A row of rucksacks lined a wall near the rubble, where a few parents quietly came to sift for mementoes, while trying to avoid reporters.

Kashiba was proud of his children, noting their fortitude at Tuesday’s assembly.

“There were unhappy faces but not one of the children cried.”

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

No graduation at Japanese school after tsunami deaths