The Principal and his School

By Corinne Morier

Toshihiko Takahama standing in school

Standing in the battered gymnasium, Takahara Toshihiko explains that families are torn over what to do about Toyoma Jr. High School. Photo by Gavin McIntyre.

On the morning of March 11, 2011, Toyoma Jr. High School, a public middle school by the shores of the ocean, held its graduation ceremony to send off the graduating students. The gymnasium, which had usually been the home of basketball games and P.E. classes, was transformed into a room where the hopes and dreams of all the students filled the air. Parents and teachers gathered to watch as the ninth graders filed onstage to receive their diplomas, marking the end of their compulsory education. Many would probably move on, having already taken the entrance exams for their desired high schools.

After the ceremony, many students went home and looked forward to the start of spring break and the opportunity to forget about their studies for a while. Others remained on campus to participate in extracurricular activities and clubs.

Across the street, the ocean, which was usually a calm expanse of blue, was beginning to change. In the midst of practice, the sports teams noticed a change in the earth beneath their feet. The extracurricular club members must have been surprised as the floor shook beneath their feet. It had to have been one of the strongest earthquakes anyone had felt in their lifetimes.

But after a moment, the shaking stopped. Everyone relaxed, thinking that it was over and that they could continue with their activities, until about half an hour later. That calm expanse of blue, which usually served as a source of inspiration for the sports teams as they sweated and dreamed of the Olympics, suddenly turned grey and monstrous. A giant wave, bigger than anything any of those young adults could have imagined, approached their school at an inescapable pace. The crashing monstrosity enveloped the spring sun as it grew, threatening to destroy everything in its path. That afternoon, so full of promise for those children just on the cusp of adulthood, turned into one of chaos as all the teachers herded their students out of the school buildings and up a hill to safety. They stood shivering as it began to snow, watching as the wave flooded their beloved school below, until the water finally receded and they were able to leave.

This is the story told by Takahara Toshihiko, who is now the principal of Tomoya Jr. High School, on a hot August day in 2014 as he led a group of visitors through the abandoned buildings that once flourished with teachers and children.

As he recalled the story, it was easy to imagine the broken-down gymnasium three years ago being filled with parents, teachers, and students, the air wavering with anticipation and new beginnings. The sakura trees surrounding the school would have been blooming, as well. But now the gymnasium, which had been the location of such a bittersweet occasion three years ago, now holds only a single chair remaining from that same graduation ceremony as a testament to that fateful day.

The question now is what to do with the old middle school. The old wooden gymnasium, which is barely standing, will be torn down. But what about the main school building, which because of its sturdy concrete structure, remains intact. Should it be torn down? Rehabilitated? The answer is not clear. Some who support the demolition of the school say that it is too painful to see the school like that, while others say the school should remain standing so as to not forget what happened that day.

Until its fate is decided, Tomoya Jr. High School will continue to serve as a storage center for some disaster debris, including desks, chairs, and the personal belongings of the students and teachers, as well as personal effects gathered three years ago from the surrounding houses after they had been destroyed. Although some of the photo albums and other belongings’ owners have been located, only a small percentage of the people have actually claimed their items. The principal told us about one woman whose photo album was located in the wreckage. It contained photos of her husband and children who were lost in the tsunami. When the school contacted her, she told them to throw her things away, that she didn’t want them anymore because it was too painful; many others who lost their homes and loved ones do not want anything that reminds them of those who have left this world.

An empty school that no longer has any students or faculty, which is now nothing more than storage for unwanted, painful memories, stands where it always has, awaiting its fate. Across the street, the ocean, which, three years ago was a raging wall of water, now sparkles merrily in the sunshine, as if the tsunami three years ago was nothing more than a dream, reminding us that after a tragedy, we have to seek out the sun and shine beautifully in the face of sadness.