‘You should Run away, too’ — Remembering the Loss behind ‘the Miracle of Kamaishi’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masaaki Kimura gazes at a memorial inscribed with a message in honor of his wife in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, on Jan. 5.

Although more than 300 elementary school children were successfully evacuated in what was hailed as the “miracle of Kamaishi” following the Great East Japan Earthquake, the whereabouts of a woman who worked in the school remain unknown.

Looking for answers to her disappearance, her husband, Masaaki Kimura, made multiple visits to both the school and the city office. All he was able to learn was that she had been attending to parents and guardians coming to pick their children up from the school. On a monument erected on the school’s premises, he inscribed a message to his wife, along with lessons learned from the disaster. “You should run away, too.”

The day after the earthquake, Kimura, a resident of the Unosumai district of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, returned from work to his tsunami-devastated home. His wife Takako wasn’t there but he wasn’t worried. He’d heard that the about 360 students of Unosumai Elementary School, where his wife worked, had fled to higher ground and he was sure “she’d be with the children.”

But when he arrived at the evacuation center where the students were, he found that Takako wasn’t there. Every day after that, he visited local evacuation centers and morgues. A month later, his mother Mitsuko was found dead, but he had still not been able to find his wife.

“Maybe she lost her memory and is still alive somewhere,” he’s admitted to thinking several times.

It was from an acquaintance that he’d heard that Takako was attending to the adults who had come to collect their children.

Why was it only her that remained at the school? Is there anyone who could have possibly seen her? What happened to the school’s evacuation manual? These were just a few of the questions that plagued his mind as he held discussions with the school and the city government over a span of three years. However, the cause of her disappearance remains unknown.

The safe evacuation of many of the city’s children, including elementary and junior high school students in the Unosumai district, was initially referred to as the “miracle of Kamaishi.” However, there were some, like Takako, who were unable to escape because of their duties, such as the firemen who went to close the floodgates. Some children died after being returned to their families. In 2014, the city began referring to the evacuation as the Kamaishi incident, out of consideration for those families.

“If we sum up the event as a miracle, the lessons we’re meant to learn from this disaster won’t be properly conveyed,” Kimura said in one of his discussions with the city government. He self-published a book in March 2015, summarizing his correspondence with the government.

The Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium, the venue for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, now stands where the school building once stood. A monument erected by local residents can be found in a corner of the stadium. “You should run away, too.” It is a simple message written in words that even children can understand.

“The fact that it’s the tenth anniversary of the disaster means nothing to those who have lost loved ones. For the sake of them all, including my wife, we must never forget.”