Photo/Illutration High school students participate in a workshop to discuss how to respond in emergencies on Jan. 9 in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture. (Hideaki Ishibashi)

Toshiro Sato took a group of high schoolers to a narrow path in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and asked them what they would do if a fast-moving wall of water came crashing down upon them.

Sato, 58, lost his daughter in the 2011 tsunami. She was among 74 pupils at Okawa Elementary School in the city who were killed in the March 11, 2011, quake-tsunami disaster.

The victims are believed to have been swept away on that same narrow path.

“Imagine the terribly frightened looks on the faces of the running children,” Sato told the students. “Imagine you are one of them. We conclusively lacked that kind of imagination.”

The education program in January took place in tsunami-hit areas of Miyagi Prefecture as part of career training for students studying at disaster-themed classes. It allows them to learn more about the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami through the accounts of victims and bereaved families.

Around 70 high schoolers from Hyogo Prefecture and elsewhere took part in the program.

Eita Yamanaka, a first-year student at Hyogo Prefectural Maiko High School, said he became painfully aware of his naiveness after listening to Sato.

“We’ve conducted evacuation drills, but they were based on overly optimistic scenarios,” Yamanaka said.

Ren Masago, a third-grader at the same school, noted that Okawa Elementary School’s pre-quake slogan “carve out the future” appeared on the wall of a destroyed outdoor stage.

“I will hand down the lessons I learned here to future generations,” Masago said.

The education board of Hyogo Prefecture helped to organize the program to equip young individuals with disaster management skills because the prefecture, particularly the Kobe area, was hit hard by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed 6,400 people.

Students of the environment and anti-disaster course at Maiko High School volunteered in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster.

The two quake-hit regions have deepened their bonds via the special annual class held in Miyagi Prefecture.

Students from Aomori and Mie prefectures took part in the latest session for the first time, bringing the number of participating institutes to 10.

A day after visiting Okawa Elementary School, the high schoolers went to a workshop in Higashi-Matsushima to discuss how to respond to emergencies. They were split into groups that separately focused on shelter management, temporary housing, rebuilding lives, and other topics.

The children used their smartphones in sorting out possible challenges and developing solutions.
Officials from Higashi-Matsushima and those involved in the recovery process offered advice, helping the students to present fresh ideas.

One suggested using “easier-to-read Japanese phrases and pictographs” at evacuation centers to make them more comfortable for non-Japanese people.

Others proposed changing the name “temporary housing” to remove the negative aspects associated with that label.

The participants also talked with disaster victims from the same generation.

Hikaru Takeyama, 21, who lived in Higashi-Matsushima when the earthquake and tsunami struck, told the students they “should not uniformly label people, for example, as parentless children or disaster victims.”

Yuta Nobukawa, a third-year Maiko High School student, nodded in agreement.

“On an earlier trip to the quake-stricken region, I paid careful attention to avoid asking inappropriate questions,” Nobukawa said. “I realized it is enough to just communicate with people there as we usually do because we are all humans.”

Yukio Saito, 67, former head of Ishinomaki-Nishi High School, devised the content of the training program with Maiko High School.

“The program aims to refine practical abilities for disaster management by taking into account the importance of protecting lives,” Saito said. “The workshop to grasp the overall picture of a disaster will prove helpful in the career education of young people wanting to become civil servants or medical and welfare workers. High school operators nationwide should adopt it.”