14 Nov 2011

The ghost school of Ishinomaki

Chief Correspondent

Alex Thomson returns to Ishinomaki’s Okawa primary school in Japan, where he finds harrowing reminders of the lives of the 74 children and teachers who died in the tsunami there eight months ago.

It is some miles inland from the ruins of Ishinomaki city. And what happened here is all the more terrifying for that.

Okawa Primary school lies on a small area of flat land between the large coastal estuary and the hillside, perhaps sixty of seventy yards distant. The conifer-lined slopes rise up steeply.

Perhaps they did not think the tsunami would come this far inland and with such ferocity and speed that it left the concrete walkway in the school a twisted, contorted, silent testimony.

It is sunset as we arrive. The place has been cleared with care, respect and thoroughness. Large piles of neatly-bulldozered debris lie at some distance from the school entrance.

It is a harrowing, private glimpse into those lost lives.

Outside the front door a shrine. Incense sticks, photographs, flowers, some toys, written messages. The large framed photo shows the school surrounded by the village it served.

There is, today, no sign that any such village was ever here – merely the silent, broken, concrete shell of its school.

Read more: Haunting pictures from Okawa primary 

In this place 74 children and staff were killed by the tsunami. Did they not get the warning? Did they think they were safe several miles inland? Did they simply not have time to get clear?

It is one story of a thousand here, posing again the issue of what now for the school which has no village, a ghost-school with an undetermined future.

Inside, in the last low rays of sunset, we find childrens’ games and nursery rhyme-books, balls and tiny shoes, more photographs this time of the school sports day.

All of it neatly stacked away with respect for the young lives lost here. It is a harrowing, private glimpse into those lost lives. Painful to come across as it must have been for the workers who cleared this place up, leaving this as their own memorial, hidden inside a broken classroom from the shrine outside.