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Archive for the ‘Okawa Elementary School’ Category

This story was in the Mainichi Daily News today. It’s about the mother I mentioned in The Saddest Day post who got a heavy machinery license to search for her daughter’s missing body. Her daughter was finally found several miles from Okawa Elementary School.

Mother determined to keep up search for missing children after daughter found dead

Naomi Hiratsuka, pictured here on Sept. 6, acquired a license to operate heavy machinery to search for children missing from the March 11 tsunami. (Mainichi)

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi — Human remains found near a fishing port have been confirmed through DNA testing to be that of sixth-grade student Koharu Hiratsuka, who had been missing since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, giving a measure of closure to her family.

The parents of 12-year-old Koharu — Shinichiro Hiratsuka, 45, and his wife Naomi, 37 — had been desperately hoping to locate at least part of their daughter’s body, and the confirmation brought both sadness and relief.

The remains were found near the fishing port in Naburi Bay by local fishermen, several kilometers from Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, where Koharu was when the tsunami struck. Shinichiro and Naomi headed to Naburi to identify the body on Aug. 9, confident that they would know whether it was their daughter by looking at her navel. Upon arrival, however, they found that the body had suffered more damage than they’d expected.

They did, however, recognize the multiple layers of underwear on the body as their daughter’s; it had still been cold when the quake and tsunami hit. They took the body home with them the next night, and had it cremated on Aug. 11.

Relieved by the confirmation that the body was indeed his daughter’s, Shinichiro says, “We can hold a proper funeral and send her off to be with everyone else.” Meanwhile, Naomi vows: “I will continue doing what I can to find other missing children.”

Search efforts for missing students continue near Okawa Elementary School (far left background). The mounds of dirt indicate areas that have already been searched. (Mainichi)

Of the 108 students at Okawa Elementary, Koharu and 69 other students were killed, and four are still missing. The school was completely submerged immediately following the tsunami, preventing those searching for missing loved ones from getting close.

Once the water had subsided, Shinichiro and Naomi shoveled through the soil looking for Koharu, along with the parents of other missing children. After Shinichiro returned to work, Naomi attended a driving school and obtained a license to operate heavy machinery in late June. She went on to dig through the ground with other parents of missing children, using machinery rented from the Ishinomaki Municipal Government.

After the March disaster, Shinichiro and Naomi’s other children, son Toma, 6, who this spring started attending Okawa Elementary School, and 2-year-old daughter Sae, whose vocabulary has expanded since she started going to daycare, continued to thrive. The Hiratsukas could not revel in their surviving children’s growth, however, with their eldest still missing. The longer Koharu remained unaccounted for, the more it unsettled them. It was already nearing the Bon festival, a Buddhist tradition honoring the dead, when Koharu finally came home.

On Sept. 11, six months after the quake and tsunami, police search operations were scaled back, with the Metropolitan Police Department’s back-up squad pulling out completely. Wondering what would happen to the four children still missing from Okawa Elementary, Naomi bid farewell to the squad in tears. After they left, she got back to digging.

Naomi says that until her daughter was found, she had been worried that her family would never find Koharu, and that they would be left behind as others turned to the future. The support of the other parents who continued to help her efforts is what drives her now. On behalf of those families who are busy searching for their missing children, Naomi says, “There are still more places that need to be searched.” She plans to continue supporting the search until all of the remaining four children from Okawa Elementary are found.

Click here for the original Japanese story

via Mother determined to jeep up search for missing children after daughter found dead – The Mainichi Daily News.

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Okawa Elementary School is a name known to nearly everyone in Japan. When the tsunami warning came, the teachers weren’t sure how best to evacuate the students. No one thought the tsunami would come 4 kilometers upriver. There was snow and the mountain behind the school was very steep. Of the 108 students, 74 died and three remain missing. Ten of the school’s 13 teachers died. Some of the children who made it to the mountain wrapped their arms around trees; some were able to hang on and some were not.

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Okawa Elementary School is about five minutes’ drive from Fukan’s temple, and six of the children who died were from Sho-un-ji. On the way back from looking through the rubble of Kannonji, we stopped at the school and offered the Daihishin Darani (Heart of Great Compassion chant) at a makeshift shrine in front of the remains of the school. The shrine had toys, stuffed animals, children’s cups, and messages to the lost children along with the usual flowers, water offerings, and funerary plaques. Chanting in front of it was one of the most difficult things I have done as a priest.IMG_4129

After we chanted, Fukan asked if I had read the messages. I had not, so she read one to me. It was from a mother to her daughter, Eri-chan. The message told Eri how sorry the mother was that she had not been able to protect her. The mother was sorry that Eri would never grow up, get married, and have children of her own. She said how much Eri’s older brother and the rest of the family missed her.

Hearing this message and standing in front of the destroyed school in the middle of a destroyed town after weeks of volunteering and listening to sad story after sad story, I started to cry. It was so unbearably sad.IMG_4125

When I first arrived at Sho-un-ji, Fukan’s teacher told me about one of the mothers of an Okawa Elementary School student. Her child was twelve years old and her body has not yet been found. The mother was heavily pregnant when the tsunami came. Soon afterwards her baby was born and then, not long after the birth, she took classes and became licensed to use heavy machinery. Now, on weekends when the machinery is not being used, the mother rents it to search on her own. Though her family begs her not to go, she goes anyway.
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When Fukan and I were in the area, I looked for the mother out of the corner of my eye. I pictured her driving a large yellow power shovel, her face strong and determined. Her story makes me think of the Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami and her dead child, the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to regard all sentient beings as having been our mothers, and the phrase from the Metta Sutra:

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings

If you know of similar teachings from other religions, please post them in the comments section below.

More of my photos.

News stories about Okawa Elementary School

Japan: Amid many tragedies, one school’s story,” GlobalPost, Gavin Blair March 25, 2011.

At that Moment, What Should We Have Done… ” Pacific Friends Fund Blog. Takashi Sasaki. April 29, 2011

Panoramic photo of the school

The following video is in Japanese, but you can get a good idea of the town and school’s story visually. It shows before and after footage, and the path of the tsunami. This is the area where Fukan lives. Her temple is along the road behind the next mountain finger beyond the school. The man’s voice you hear while watching the video of the tsunami coming in is saying, “Is the school o.k.?’

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