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Remembering 3/11

EDITORIAL | Honor 3.11 Victims by Supporting Recovery in Other Disaster Zones

While continuing the recovery from 3.11 at home, Japan should be a country willing to help the people of Ukraine and assist the victims in Turkey and Syria.

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On the 12th anniversary, people meditate in silence at the time of the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 at 2:46 PM. Rikuzentakata City, Iwate Prefecture (© Sankei by Hideyuki Matsui)

Irina Honcharova, 63, used to be an elementary school teacher in the city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. In April of 2022, after Russia’s invasion of her homeland, she fled to Japan with her 86-year-old mother. Irina came to join her son, who lives in the city of Ishinomaki in Iwate Prefecture with his Japanese wife. On 3.11, Ishinomaki happened to be one of the communities most devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Irina, a victim of war, now lives in public housing constructed for the victims of that devastating natural disaster.

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The Great Easat Japan Earthquake devastated huge swaths of the Northeast Japan coastline in the wake of the earthquake, fires and tsunami that followed on March 11, 2011.

Never Forget This Day

Since September 2022, the Ukrainian has been volunteering twice a month at the site of the ruins of Kadonowaki Elementary School. There, she talks to visitors about the preciousness of life.

Irina, who taught elementary school for many years, says that the forlorn sight of the buildings of Kadonowaki Elementary, as they were left by the earthquake and subsequent massive tsunami, have become superimposed in her mind with the heartbreaking sight of her own school after it was destroyed ... by Russian artillery:

The sadness left after precious life has been snatched away. 
The anguish of seeing the place where you live destroyed.
Hoping to escape the misery. 
The determination to rise once again.

There is a difference between the devastation brought about by war and natural disaster. Nevertheless, the emotions of Irina and the residents of this area hit by the massive earthquake and tsunami transcend native languages and national borders. Having endured these tragedies, their thoughts overlap and resonate with each other:

There are many graveyards around Kadonowaki Elementary School. 
A short walk through them
Brings you to a memorial stone reading 
Heisei 23, March 11.
That fatal day.
Twelve years have now gone by. 
The time has arrived to mark the 13th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami. 
15,900 dead.
2,523 people unaccounted for. 
3,789 earthquake-related later deaths.
We cannot forget. We must not forget. 
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Rescuers work amidst the debris of a school building destroyed by shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 4, 2022. REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Remembering in Japan, in Ukraine, in Turkey

March 11 is a "Day of Remembrance" for those of us alive today to remember all of the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and to pray for the repose of their souls.

At the same time, we must reaffirm our determination to support recovery for the disaster victims and the affected areas.

Elsewhere, it has been more than a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, with no end in sight for that conflict. As war rages around them, the Ukrainian people yearn for the day when they can once again enjoy peaceful lives.

More than a month has also elapsed since a major earthquake struck near the border between Turkey and Syria. Over 50,000 people in those two countries died as a result. Having lost their homes, many Turkish and Syrian survivors struggle to get by in temporary shelters as they await assistance. Irina observed:

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Small and weak I may be, but I want to be a supportive force.

These are the thoughts of the victims of other tragedies who have experienced hardships similar to those of the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. It is also a sentiment that all Japanese shared at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake. 

Reconstruction and revitalization of the affected areas in Tohoku is ongoing. While continuing with those efforts, Japan should be a country and a people willing to help the people of Ukraine and assist the victims in Turkey and Syria.

Let us confirm those thoughts by coming together for a day of remembrance for victims of earthquakes.

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Many buildings collapsed in an earthquake in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border on February 6. (© Getty via Kyodo)

Tsunami and Fires

In particular, let us take to heart lessons from the tsunami.

Ishinomaki City suffered the most casualties among the affected municipalities. There were 3,277 confirmed deaths, 417 people missing, and 276 related deaths. Within the city, the Minamihama-Kadonowaki area, where Kadonowaki Elementary School was located, was especially severely impacted. 

The massive tsunami that struck about an hour after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent spread of fires caused by the tsunami took the lives of over 500 locals. 

Luckily, children and teachers at the school immediately gathered in the schoolyard. And 15 minutes after the earthquake, they had completed their evacuation to Hiyoriyama Park, located on a roughly 56-meter-high hill behind the school building, just as they had practiced during evacuation drills. 

However, after that some nearby residents of the area sought refuge in the three-story reinforced concrete school building. By this time, many buildings in the area were ablaze. And as the tsunami approached the school, it carried the fiery wreckage with it. 

The evacuation route on which the children had walked to safety was soon under water. Evacuating residents sought any escape route they could find from the fires, with some scrambling across a platform that lay between the school building and the slope leading to Mt Hiyori. 

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By the time the tsunami itself reached Kadonowaki Elementary, it had a height of about 1.8 meters. That meant that people on the second and third stories should have been safe. The fires, however, consumed nearly the entire structure, leaving only charred ruins. 

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12 years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, mourners remember their loved ones. For example, shown here: "I lost my sister-in-law in the earthquake at Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture. (© Sankei by Ko Notomi)

Lessons for a Land of Earthquakes

Kadonowaki Elementary School is the only earthquake ruin that retains traces of the effects of the tsunami fires. It stands as a reminder that, in the event of a tsunami, in some cases vertical evacuation alone may not be enough to save lives. That lesson holds true especially for flat tsunami inundation zones. 

The ruins of Kadonowaki Elementary School have been open to viewing by the public since April of 2022. Its official designation as an earthquake remains came late as compared to remains in other areas. 

Many residents were initially strongly in favor of dismantling what was left of the school. Rather, they found it painful to look at the burned-out school buildings. 

However, many other residents strongly supported keeping the ruins of the school buildings so that the events of that March day would not be forgotten and memories would be passed down to future generations. It took the two sides a long time to come to terms. Meanwhile, residents on each side could well understand the feelings of their neighbors who held the opposite view.

Irina Honcharova's activities at Kadonowaki Elementary School show how "the will to communicate" among people living in an area that has endured a long struggle can also become "the power to connect with the world.”

Japan is a disaster-prone land. That is all the more reason why we should share the sense of purpose found in devastated areas. We must support those who suffer and contribute to the international community through reconstruction and disaster prevention activities.

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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