Miyagi town unveils final monument preserving memories of 2011 disaster

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A group unveils the 21st “Onagawa Stone Monument of Life” in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, on Sunday.

ONAGAWA, Miyagi — A group that includes those who were junior high school students when the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the Tohoku region marked a milestone Sunday by erecting the 21st and last stone monument commemorating the disaster in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture.

The “Onagawa Stone Monuments of Life,” erected at places near but higher than where a massive tsunami hit and bearing the message “We hope you will protect life while never forgetting,” are aimed at preserving the lessons learned from the calamity.

The tsunami was 14.8 meters high when it obliterated the town on March 11, 2011, sweeping more than 800 residents to their deaths. The following month, Kazuhiko Abe, a social studies teacher, asked his new class of first-year students at now Onagawa Junior High School, “What can we do for our hometown?”

That question provided the impetus for the school’s students and others to launch a project to erect stone monuments, with the aim of conveying to future generations their experience of the disaster.

The goal was to erect monuments at 21 points in the town near where it was confirmed that the tsunami hit. The group solicited donations during a school trip to Tokyo and raised about ¥10 million, and the first monument went up in 2013. They continued the project even after graduating.

A ceremony to unveil the 21st monument was held Sunday near the school, which had been relocated to higher ground. Abe, 55, and graduates who had participated in the project were among those on hand at the ceremony.

“Our goal is to protect the lives of people 1,000 years from now,” said Tomohiro Suzuki, 22, a project participant now in his senior year at university. “I want to tell the story of the disaster and expand the circle of disaster preparation around the world.”

The monuments are engraved with poems like haiku, which were written by students at the time of the disaster. On the 21st is carved, “Only my dreams / Couldn’t be destroyed by / Major disaster,” written by Taisuke Yamada, a 23-year-old graduate student in geophysics at Tohoku University.

As his poem suggests, Yamada is following a path to achieve his goal and become a scientist as he seeks to clarify the mechanism of earthquakes.

From childhood, Yamada liked to collect alluring pebbles found on the roadside, and aspired to become a researcher on minerals. Everything changed when the disaster struck.

His family was unharmed, but his house was swept away by the tsunami, taking his treasured rock collection with it. Debris covered the streets leading to the school, and a gloomy atmosphere filled the classroom. Over the ensuing decade, he was determined not to let the disaster spoil his dream, no matter how hard circumstances become.

“Even if another major disaster strikes, I hope this poem will make people feel a little more positive,” Yamada said.