The academy beneath the movement: the unimaginable tragedy of Japan’s tsunami

The long read: In 2011 a tsunami engulfed Japans north-east coast. More than 18,000 parties were killed. Six years later, in one community, survivors are still tormented by a cataclysmic split-second decision

The earthquake that impressed Japan on Friday 11 March 2011 was the fourth more powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth six and a half inches off its axis; it moved Japan four metres closer to America. In the tsunami disaster that followed, more than 18,000 beings were killed. At its top, the sea was 40 meters high. Half a million people were driven out of their residences. Three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The shake and tsunami generated more than $210 bn of damage, shaping it the most costly natural disaster ever.

Pain and anxiety proliferated in ways that are still hard to measure, even among parties remote from the pernicious episodes. Farmers, suddenly unable to sell their cause, killed themselves. Blameless craftsmen in electricity companies met themselves the object of abuse and discrimination. A generalised dread took grasp, the fear of an invisible poison spread through breeze, through water- even, it was said, through fathers’ milk.

Those who work in zones of battle and catastrophe acquire, after a epoch, the knack of withdrawal. This is professional necessity: no doctor, facilitate craftsman or reporter can do his chore if he is humiliated by the spectacle of demise and agony. The trick is to preserve empathy without making private individuals misfortune as your own; and as a foreign correspondent and sometime conflict reporter, I had mastered this technique. I knew the facts of what had happened, and I knew the latter are scandalizing. But at my core, I was not appalled.

” All at once … something we could only have imagined was upon us- and we could still only reckon it ,” the reporter Philip Gourevitch formerly wrote.” That is what mesmerizes me most in existence: the singular essential of reckoning what is, in fact, real .”

The incidents that constituted the catastrophe were so diverse, and so vast in their suggests, that I never felt that I was doing the legend justice. In the weeks afterwards, I experienced meditate, patho and sadness. But for much of the time I knowledge a numb force, and the troubling gumption of having entirely missed the point.

It was quite late on, the summer after the tsunami, when I heard about a small community on the coast that had suffered an exceptional misfortune. Its reputation was Okawa; it lay in a forgotten fold of Japan, below hills and among rice fields. In the years that followed, I encountered many survivors and narratives of the tsunami, but it was to Okawa that I recalled time and again. And it was there, at the school, that I eventually became able to imagine.


Okawa elementary school was more than 200 miles north of Tokyo in a village announced Kamaya, which stands on the bank of a great flow, the Kitakami, two miles inland of the phase where it flows into the Pacific Ocean. In ancient times, such regions of Japan, known as Tohoku, was a notorious frontier realm of barbarians, goblins and fierce cold. Even today, it remains a remote, marginal, faintly melancholy place, the emblem of a rural tradition that, for city-dwellers, is no more than a kinfolk memory.

One of the students at Okawa elementary, Tetsuya Tadano, was a stocky boy of 11, with close-cropped mane and an air of mild, amused misbehaviour. Every morning he made the 20 -minute walk from his house to school with his nine-year-old sister, Mina, along the embankment of the river. On the day of the quake, it was the 40 th birthday of their mom, Shiroe; a small gala was projected at home that evening. But otherwise it was an unremarkable Friday afternoon.

At lunchtime, the children razz on unicycles in the courtyard and foraged for four-leafed clovers. It was cold, and a perforate gale came off the river- Tetsuya and his friends digested in a row with their hands in their pockets, and became their backs on it to keep the chill off their faces.

Lessons at Okawa elementary school finished at 2.30 pm. At 2.45 pm, the school bus was waiting in the car park with its instrument guiding; a few of the younger students had already climbed in. But most of the children were still in their classrooms, finishing up the last institution business of the week. A hour subsequently, the sixth-year class were singing Glad Birthday to one of their numbers, a girl mentioned Manno. It was in the middle of this song that the earthquake struck.

two-part map picturing countries of the region of japan affected by the 2011 tsunami

The room was shaking very slowly from side to side, said Soma Sato, one of the sixth-year sons.” They weren’t small-minded, fast shakes- it experienced gigantic. The teaches were leading up and down, saying,’ Hold on to your tables .'”

In the library, a male appointed Shinichi Suzukiwas waiting for his son, who was in the sick area, having being taken complaint earlier in the day. Hewatched as the water in the school fish tank slopped over its backs in brandishes. In Tetsuya’s class, the fifth year were getting ready to go home for the day.” When the quake first reached, we all took cover under our desks ,” he said.” As the shake went stronger, everyone was saying occasions like,’ Whoa! This is big. You OK ?’ When it stopped, the educator said, right away:’ Follow me outside .’ So we all put on our helmets and went out .”

The school building was evacuated with exemplary rapidity. Scarcely five minutes when he was hunker under their tables, the children were in the playground, lined up by class, wearing the hard plastic helmets “thats been” stored in each child’s locker.

Much subsequently, the city authorities would compile a minute- by-minute log of the events of that afternoon, based on interviews with living evidences. It transmitted something of the sky after a big shake, of excitement and resignation, light-heartedness and dreaded πŸ˜› TAGEND

Child: Everyone sat down and the register was taken. The lower-grade daughters were screaming, and Miss Shirota and Miss Konno were stroking their intelligences and saying, “It’s fine.” One of the sixth-grade boys was saying,” I wonder if my game console at home is OK .”

Child: It must have been a kind of” earthquake sickness”, because there were little kids throwing up.

Child: My sidekick said:” I wonder if there’ll be a tsunami .”

The alarm of the younger children was restored by repeated, jolting aftershocks. At 2.49 pm, while the tremors of the mother shock continues to be jangling outwards across north and east Japan, the Meteorological Agency questioned a forewarn: a six metre-high tsunami was expected; everyone on the coast of north-east Japan should evacuate to higher ground.

There were more aftershocks at 3.03 pm, at 3.06 pm and at 3.12 pm. At 3.14 pm, the Meteorological Agency revised its warning: the tsunami was expected to come in at a height of 10 metres. The coaches in the playground structured a huddle beneath the cherry trees and engaged in its general discussion in low voices.


Like many Japanese organizations, the operations of Okawa elementary school were governed by a manual. The Education Project, as it was called, plowed everything from ethical principles to the protocol for graduation ceremonies. One slouse was devoted to emergencies, including volley, floodlight and epidemic.

The Education Plan was based on a national template, which was adjusted according to the circumstances of each school. Immediately after the earthquake, in the hamlets by the sea, teachers and children were following instructions to ascend up steep tracks and cliff gradations. At Okawa, the deputy headmaster, Toshiya Ishizaka, had been responsible for altering the Education Scheme, but he had left unchanged the generic terminology of the template.

As Ishizaka held in the playground, he found only these vague messages to puzzle over:” Primary evacuation place: academy dirts. Secondary emptying place, in case of tsunami: unoccupied land near school, or park, etc .”

The vagueness of this expression was unhelpful. The including references to” park, etc” constructed little sense out here in the countryside, where there were arenas and mountains, but no parks as such. As for” unoccupied country”, there was an abundance of that- the question was: where?

There was an obvious situate of security. The institution was immediately in front of a forested slope, 220 metres high at its highest point. Until only a few years ago, “their childrens” had gone up there as part of their discipline lessons, to foster a patch of shiitake mushrooms. This was a clamber that the smallest among the children could have easily managed. Within five minutes- the time it had taken them to evacuate their classrooms- the entire institution could have ascended high-pitched above sea level, beyond the reach of any conceivable tsunami.

One elderly schoolteacher, Junji Endo, subsequently withdrew one summary gossip with Ishizaka, after checking for stragglers inside the school.” I asked:’ What should we do? Should we run to the hill ?’ I was told that it was impossible with the shaking .”

But one of the survivors from the sixth time recalled a much more dramatic involvement. Endo, she said, had emerged from the school, announcing out loudly,” To the hill! The mountain! Run to the hill !”

map showing how tsunami thumped kamaya village and owaka school

His alarm was picked up by one of the students, Daisuke Konno, and his friend, Yuki Sato, who stirred their own petitions to their sixth-year educator, Takashi Sasaki:” We should clamber the hill, sir. If we stay here, the dirt might split open and swallow us up. We’ll die if we stay here !”

The boys began to run in the direction of the mushroom spot. But Endo was invalidated, the sons were ordered to come back and shut up, and they rendered obediently to their class.

Two distinct groups of people were beginning to gather at the school. The first were parents and grandparents, arriving by car and on foot to pick up children. The second were neighbourhood parties from the village- to complicate concerns further, Okawa elementary was itself labelled public officials region of removal for the village of Kamaya. And a drastic difference of opinion, verging at times on open conflict, was revealing itself in the position of the the two groups.

The parents, by and large, wanted to get their children out and away as soon as is practicable. From the education board’s log πŸ˜› TAGEND

Child: My mum came to pick me up, and we told Mr Takashi that I was going home. We were told,” It’s dangerous to go home now, so better is necessary to stay in the school .”

Parent: I told Mr Takashi,” The radio says that there’s a 10 -metre tsunami coming .” I said,” Run up the hill !” and pointed to the hill. I was told,” Calm down, ma’am .”

The local beings, by and large, wanted to stay put. Most of both parents who came to the school were full-time mothers and housewives; most of the villagers offering their opinions were retired, elderly and male. It was another enactment of the ancient exchange, its cables written centuries ago, between the entreating tones of the status of women, and the oblivious, overbearing dismissiveness of old men.


When the earthquake struck, Toshinobu Oikawa- a grey-suited boy in his late 50 s who worked in the neighbourhood limb of the Ishinomaki town government- was in his office , not far from Okawa elementary school. Within five minutes, the first tsunami alarming was received from the Meteorological Agency. Within 15 instants, Oikawa and five of my honourable colleagues were climbing into three autoes mounted with rooftop speakers of their own, and setting out to deliver the warn in person.

They were driving through the outer perimeters of Kamaya when Oikawa became aware of something astonishing taking place two miles ahead of them, at the phase where the sea filled the region. The home was Matsubara, the spit of areas and sand where a ribbon of pine forest ripened alongside the beach. The trees were a century old-fashioned. Many of them were around 20 metres high. And now, as Oikawa watched, the high seas was devastating them, withdrawing up their pointed dark-green tops and tearing up the woodland in a frothing surge.

” I could see the white of the movement, suds over the top of the trees ,” he said.” It was coming down over them like a cataract. And there were vehicles “re coming back” the other direction, and the operators were wailing at us:’ The tsunami is coming. Get out! Get out !’ So immediately we made a U-turn and went back the acces we’d come .”

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Television helicopter footage captivates the tsunami as it ravages north-east Japan

Within seconds the latter are driving through Kamaya again. More aftershocks were taking place. But it was as if the entire hamlet had descended under a spell. One of Oikawa’s colleagues was wailing through the car’s loudspeaker:” A super-tsunami has reached Matsubara. Evacuate! Evacuate to higher floor !”

” There were seven or eight parties sitting around the street, chit-chat ,” Oikawa remembered.” They paid us no notice. I recognized the patrol car parked in front of the village police container. But the policeman wasn’t overtaking on the alert, and he wasn’t trying to flee, either. We delivered the school. We were driving rapidly, we didn’t stop, and we couldn’t clearly identify the playground. But they must have heard our content too. The school bus was merely standing there .”

In Kamaya, beings were doing what the hell is ever did after an earthquake: straighten up. Among them was a farmer in his 60 s named Waichi Nagano, who lived in a big house out in the fields.” I heard all the admonishings ,” he said.” There was the loudspeaker gondola from the town hall going up and down, saying,’ Super-tsunami imminent: evacuate, evacuate !’ There were a lot of sirens, too. Everyone in the village must have heard them. But we didn’t take it seriously .”


In the playground, the children were becoming restless. A mood of bored abandonment had established itself. It was cold. People shared blankets and hand-warmers. There was no feel of anything much result, or that anything was likely to happen very soon.

At 3.25 pm Oikawa and the three loudspeaker vans drove past, honk their desperate alarm. In the school playground, the schoolteachers were preparing to ignite wood in petroleum drums to keep the children warm.

At 3.30 pm, an elderly gentleman mentioned Kazuo Takahashi fled his home next to the river. He too had neglected the threatenings, until he became abruptly aware of the high seas streaming over the embankment beside his home. It seemed to be coming from below the earth, as well as across it: metal manhole reports in the road were being face-lift upwards by rising irrigate; dirt was gushing up between the rifts that the earthquake had opened in the road.

Takahashi led his gondola towards the closest neighbourhood of departure, the hill behind the school. On the main street of Kamaya he saw sidekicks and acquaintances standing and chatting. He rolled down his space and called to them,” There’s a tsunami coming. Get out !” He delivered his cousin and his wife and delivered the same tell. They waved, smiled and dismissed him.

Takahashi parked his vehicle next to the school. As he clambered out and obliged for the hill, he became aware of a large number of children questioning forth from the school in a hurry.

Among them was Tetsuya Tadano, who had remained in the playground with his class. Mr Ishizaka, the deputy head, was absent from the playground. He reappeared suddenly.” A tsunami seems to be coming ,” he called.” Quickly. We’re going to the traffic island. Get into way, and don’t move .”

Tetsuya and his friend Daisuke Konno were at the front of the group. The traffic island was less than 400 metres away, just outside the hamlet, at the degree where the road filled the New Kitakami Great Bridge. It was as he approached this junction that he saw a black mass of water hastening along the main road ahead of him.

Debris
Debris in a second-floor classroom at Okawa elementary school. Image: Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Barely a time had extended since he had left the playground. He was conscious of a roaring sound, and a sheet of white spray above the pitch-black. It was streaming in from the river, the direction in which “their childrens” had been ordered to move.

Some of those at the figurehead of the line froze in the face of the billow. Others, including Tetsuya and Daisuke, altered at once and ran away back the acces they had come. The remainder of “their childrens” were continuing to hurry towards the main road; the little ones towards the back were visibly puzzled by the sight of the older children pelting in the opposite direction.

Soon, Tetsuya and Daisuke ascertained themselves at the foot of the hill, at the steepest and most thickly forested area of the gradient. At some phase, Tetsuya became aware that Daisuke had fallen, and he tried, and flunked, to gather his friend up. Then Tetsuya was scrambling up the hill. As he did so, he appeared back over his shoulder and insured the darkness of the tsunami rising behind him. Soon it was at his paws, his calves, his buttocks, his back.

” It felt like the huge oblige of seriousnes when it made me ,” he said.” It was as if someone with enormous forte was pushing. I couldn’t breathe, I was fighting for breather .” He became aware of a rock and a tree, and found himself caught between them, with the ocean rising about him.

Then darkness overcame him.


Everyone who experienced the tsunamisaw, listen and reeked something subtly different. Much depended upon “where youve”, and the obstacles that the liquid had to overcome to reach you. Some described a cascade, cascading over sea wall and embankment. For others, it was a fast-rising deluge between mansions, deceptively slight at first, tugging trippingly at the hoofs and ankles, but soon sucking and battering at legs and chests and shoulders. In colour, it was described as dark-brown, gray-headed, pitch-black, white.

The one thing it did not resemble in the least was a conventional ocean ripple, the billow from the far-famed woodblock engrave by Hokusai: blue-green and cresting elegantly in tentacles of sud. The tsunami was a stuff of a different tell: darker, stranger, massively most powerful and violent, without kindness or brutality, charm or ugliness, utterly alien. It was the sea coming on to territory, the ocean itself picking up its hoofs and charging at you with a booming in its throat.

It stank of brine, dirt and seaweed. Most disturbing of all were the bangs it rendered as it collided with, and digested, the stuff of the human rights world: the crunch and squawk of timber and concrete, metal and tile. In regions, a strange junk billowed above it, like the gloom of pulverised subject that floats above a demolished house. It was as if neighborhoods, villages, whole towns were being placed inside the jaws of a monstrous compressor and crushed.

From the hillside that overlooked Kamaya, where they had narrowly escaped to refuge, Waichi Nagano and his wife, Hideko, could see the whole situation spread out below them, as the ocean wiped in pulsating surges over the embankment and across the hamlet and the fields.” It was a huge pitch-black mountain of water, which came on all at once and destroyed the houses ,” he said.” It was just a solid stuff. And there was this strange resonate, difficult to describe. It wasn’t like the sound of the high seas. It was more like the thundering of the earth, mixed with a kind of crumpling, grumbling interference, which was the houses breaking up .”

There was another fainter racket.” It was the voices of children ,” said Hideko.” They were exclaiming out-‘ Assist! Help !'” On the hill above, where he had half-climbed, half-floated to security, Kazuo Takahashi heard them, very.” I heard children ,” he said.” But the ocean was twirling round, there was the crunching racket of the curve and the rubble, and their voices became weaker and weaker .”


Tetsuya Tadano came to on the hill, dazzled by silt and with the shriek of the tsunami disaster in his ears. His appendages were immobilised by spars of debris and by something else- something wriggling and alive, which is now being changing its weight on top of him. It was Kohei Takahashi, Tetsuya’s friend and fifth-year classmate. Kohei’s life had been saved by private households refrigerator. It had floated past with its entrance open as he threshed in the irrigate, and he had squirmed into it, ridden it like a ship and been dropped by it on his schoolmate’s back.

” Help! I’m underneath you ,” Tetsuya wept. Kohei tugged him free. Digesting on the steep ascent, the two sons beheld the scene below.

Beyond Kamaya had been a succession of hamlets, and beyond them battlegrounds, low mountains, the swaying bow of the river and finally the Pacific Ocean. After the tsunami disaster, the village, the hamlets, the fields and everything else between here and the sea was gone.

Tetsuya’s firstly thought was that he and his friend were already dead. He took the raging ocean to be the River of Three Crossings, the Japanese equivalent of the River Styx. Those who have led good lives cross the river safely by bridge; evil-doers must take their chances in the dragon-ridden irrigates. Innocent children, being neither sinful nor honourable, will vary depending on a kindly Buddha to make their text, and protect children from the depredations of hags and demons.

The
The devastated city of Minamisanriku, Miyagi, 2 day after the tsunami disaster. Picture: The Asahi Shimbun/ Getty Images

” I contemplated I’d died ,” Tetsuya said.” Dead … the River of Three Crossings. But then there was the New Kitakami Great Bridge, and the traffic island. And so I conceived this might be Kamaya after all .”

The water, which had receded, began to upsurge up the hill again. The two sons tottered up the slope. Tetsuya’s face was pitch-black and bruised. In the churn of the tsunami, the ill-fitting plastic helmet that he wore had twisted on its fasten and mine viciously against his eyes. His vision was affected for weeks; he could only dimly do it what was going on in the ocean below.

Kohei’s left wrist was broken and his skin was punctured by thorns, but his vision was unaffected. Whatever was visible of the destiny of his institution and his schoolmates, he saw it. He would never talk publicly about it.

Only afterward would the full scale of the tragedy at Okawa elementary school become clear. The school had 108 children. Of the 78 who were there at the moment of the tsunami disaster, 74 of them, and 10 out of the 11 educators, had died.


Later, many of the children’s parentswere tormented by self-reproach for not rushing to the school to obtain them. But far from being neglectful or lazy, they had followed the course of action that, in every other circumstance, would have been most likely to secure their safety and survival. Nowhere in Japan are precautions against natural disaster more robust than in territory institutions. On 11 March 2011, out of 18,000 parties killed by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, exclusively 75 were children in the care of their teachers. All but one are currently in Okawa elementary school.

Katsura Sato’s daughter Mizuho was one of “their childrens” killed at Okawa.” After the cremation- well, I’m usually health, but I became ill ,” Katsura said.” I couldn’t get up. I stayed in bed for three days. And I started thinking and thinking, and I became very suspicious about the circumstances in which we lost our daughter. I knew that this was a great natural disaster, and I assumed at the beginning that there must have been many other lawsuits like this, other institutions where the same thing happened. But why did I never hear of them ?” In the nearby villages along the river, as they began to catch their breather in the weeks following the disaster, other mothers were expecting the same question.

The revelation of the truth about what had happened was itself the opposite of a tsunami. There was no grandiose culminate , no crashing movement or rumbling of the earth. The happenings came out in seeps and drippings, some falling naturally, some pinched out by wringing sides. The stray texts of a enduring child, divulging an unrecognised downfall. A document uncovering contradictions among the official history. The official history itself, wobbling and bending. Every few months there was a new” explanatory session”, at which the bureaucrats of the Ishinomaki Education Board submitted themselves to the exasperation of the parents. Reluctantly and with trepidation, beings came forward to tell their stories.

The imperviousness of the city officials, their refusal to muster a human response to the suffering of the families, seemed at the beginning to be a collective collapse of character, and of leader. But as season transferred, the mothers began to believe another motivating- an obsession with evading anything that could be taken as an admission of indebtednes. The metallic tang of lawyerly advice remained around many of the bureaucrats’ expressions. They were happy to express grief and condolence, and willing to abase themselves in general terms for their unworthiness. But to recognise specific negligence on the part of individuals, or methodical, institutional lack- that was a pace no one would take.

Twenty-three months after the tsunami, the Ishinomaki city government announced the establishment of something called the Okawa elementary school occurrence proof committee, which would invest a year reviewing documents and imparting interviews. Its acquires were published in a 200 -page report in February 2014.

A
A clock in a second-floor classroom at Okawa elementary school, which stopped at 3.36 pm, about 50 hours after the quake. Photo: Alamy

The committee’s mission- “verification”- turned out to have targeted and restraint scope: to establish the facts and causes of what happened, but by no means to assign personal responsibility. It concluded that the deaths grew because the departure of the playground was delayed, and because the children and coaches eventually fled towards the tsunami , not away from it.

The report “re just saying that” the school, the board of education and the city government were inadequately prepared for such a natural disaster. The municipal” peril map”, which indicated areas of coast vulnerable to tsunami, did not include Kamaya. The possibility of a tsunami was not considered in gathering the school’s tragedy manual, and there were no tsunami evacuation drills. No one in the municipal government had checked on the readyings taken by the school.” Educators at the school ,” research reports territory,” were psychologically unable to accept that they were facing imminent threat .” If any one of these failures has not been able to occurred, the committee concluded, the misfortune could have been avoided.

The most controversial aspects of the case- such as the hush of the boys who wanted to run to the hill- were discounted or skated over. To the parents, the committee’s conclusions were no more than an expensive restatement of what had been obvious for more than two years. The true purpose of the activity, they deduced, was to shut down gap about the tragedy by commissioning “independent” experts to develop a tepid report, which expressed mild disapprovals while sparing the careers and reputations of the guilty.

The committee’s report came out almost three years after the tsunami. The date before the commemoration, on 10 March 2014, came a startling patch of word. The those who are relatives of 23 children who had died at Okawa were suing the town of Ishinomaki and Miyagi prefecture in the Sendai district court. They accused them of failure, and expected compensation for each of the lives failed. It was two years and 364 dates since the disaster- the last moment that it was legally possible to file a event. It was the move they had secretly been contriving all along.


In Japanese justice , nothing happens promptly. It was not until April 2016 that evidences appeared to give evidence in the case against Ishinomaki city and Miyagi prefecture, the co-defendants in the case. The plaintiffs’ say was that the city, in the person or persons of the schoolteachers at Okawa elementary school, had been guilty of failure in failing to protect the children in its attend. The suit centred on two questions. Could the teaches have foreseen the coming of the tsunami disaster? And, if so, could they have saved the children from it?

The Sendai district court gave its finding on 26 October 2016. I took the bullet train up that morning from Tokyo.It was a warm, piercingly luminous daytime. Five and a half years had legislated since the tsunami disaster, and there was no obvious sign that it has in the past taken place. The towns and cities of Tohoku were humming with the money that was being injected into the region for its reconstruction. One hundred thousand people still lived in metal houses, but these upsetting lieu were tucked away out of view of the casual guest. Nothing of the cities destroyed by the motion had been rebuilt, but “theyve been” rubbed absolutely of rubble. Coarse, tussocky grass had overgrown the coastal airstrip, and those breaks that poked through it searched more like ignored archaeological places than plazas of continuing sting and despair.

In front of the Sendai courthouse, reporters and photographers were milling lazily. A ruffle of animation overtaken through them at the newcomer of a procession, slowly forming its acces through the sunshine. It was the plaintiffs, the mothers and leaders of the Okawa children, ambling along the sidewalk, three abreast. They wore black. Various carried framed photographs of their sons and daughters. The three humanities at the front impounded a wide placard. Around its perimeters were the faces of the 23 children named in the case provided for, photographed at home, at institution or playing outside, chortling, smiling or solemn. In the centre was a sentence of Japanese, the characters carefully hand-painted with an ink brush:” We did what our teachers told us .”

The doors of the courtroom were opened, and everyone took their residences. I appeared across at the black-clad mothers. How many hours I had spent talking to them over the years, in discussions filled with intense, and sometimes insufferable, item. They had spoken to me about each stage of the lives of their children, in childhood, infancy, even in gestation.Grief was in their snouts like a stench; it was the first thing they thought of when they waken in the morning, and the last thought in their attentions as they went to sleep at night.They remembered the school, and members of the community of families of which “its been” the focus. They described the catastrophe and its unfold, the blows of realisation that followed, and the asphyxia of loss and of survival.

A door opened noiselessly, and all at once the three judges- a young woman and two middle-aged servicemen- were seated in their black costumes. The judge in the centre inaugurated pronouncing, instantly, calmly and without intonation. The Japanese he applied, formal and legalistic, was beyond my comprehend. So I focused instead on the faces of the listening mothers- there, surely, I would immediately be able to read the finding, in their rage or joy. The faces looked intently at the judge.They frowned in concentration; their boasts were blank and expressionless. And then, as unexpectedly as it began, it was all over, and the inhabitants of the court were standing up and registering out.

The mothers were on their feet, very. They exchanged no messages or glimpses; they looked tomb and even frightful. And hitherto, towards the end, I envisaged I had been able to follow part of the judge’s verdict, the division when he seemed to be prescribing the defendants to compensate what clanged like a very large sum of money.

I stepped out into the passage where the Japanese reporters were clustered, equating memoes. I had not misinterpret. The Okawa parents had won their suit- they had been awarded more than PS11m. All their children were still dead.

Main image: Reuters/ Yuriko Nakao

Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry will be published by Jonathan Cape on 31 August.

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