Poignant memories of a Japanese summer and a new beginning for victims of disaster

16th September 2011 at 01:00
A trip to Miyako offered the lesson of a lifetime in the painful history of tsunamis

One of my most enjoyable summer breaks was spent train-hopping in Japan. With a "travel anywhere" rail-pass, I visited many fascinating places and met many interesting people.

I visited a coastal town called Miyako to take a photograph of its seawall. I was writing a geography textbook about natural disasters and wanted to illustrate the text with my own photographs.

While photographing a tsunami warning sign on the side of the wall, I was approached by Hiroshi, a retired teacher. He told me about the long history of tsunamis which had struck the town and how the 10m-high seawall had been built much higher than anyone thought necessary.

As Hiroshi walked me back to the station, he talked about his experiences as a teacher. He had enjoyed the job, but was glad to have retired and to be able to spend more time travelling and playing golf. He asked about Scotland and said he hoped to visit Edinburgh for its New Year celebrations.

I guessed Hiroshi had been an effective and popular teacher. Indeed, some of the children we passed on the way to the station smiled and said "Konnichiwa sensei" ("Hello, honourable teacher").

I recall passing Miyako's fire-station, where two kindergarten teachers had pushed a cart full of pre-schoolers to look at the fire engines and talk to the firemaster.

The seawall, Hiroshi and that cart full of wee people are among my clearest memories. I have photographs of them all.

Earlier this year, Miyako's 10m-high seawall proved useless against the barrage of water which struck Japan's north-eastern coast. The complex plate tectonics had caused the land to sink to enable huge waves to sweep over the seawall. A large part of Miyako was swept away. Many people were drowned and others made homeless.

Damage to the nearby Fukushima nuclear power station has prompted fears that many people have been exposed to higher-than-permitted levels of radiation.

I don't know what fate had in store for Hiroshi, and the many young people I had passed in Miyako's main street, but one of Japan's teachers' unions reckons that over 2,000 school pupils, teachers and support staff were killed during the 11 March earthquake and tsunami disaster.

September is the month when Japanese pupils return to school after their summer break. Many school buildings are still damaged or are in such poor condition that they have to be replaced. Some buildings are still being used as refuge centres.

But most pupils will now be able to return to their lessons. For many it will be an emotional return, but also a chance to meet up with classmates and, together, continue their recovery from what was the most awful of disasters.

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