Diplomas and Uncertainty for Japanese Pupils






KESENNUMA, Japan — Schools here begin class in April and hold graduation ceremonies in March; like spring, they represent renewal and rebirth.

On Tuesday morning, in a school meeting hall in this tsunami-ravaged seaport, it became something else: an act of defiance.

Gathering in the shadow of this seaport’s tsunami disaster zone, two solemn and often tearful crowds met to award diplomas to the sixth- and ninth-grade classes of Hashikami Elementary and Junior High schools. Inside the junior high auditorium, hundreds of refugees from the March 11 tsunami rolled up their blankets and moved to the rear to make way for a ritual that any parent would instantly recognize: the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon; the students’ march to the podium; the singing of school songs; the snapping of cellphone photos.

But no one should be fooled. The ceremonies, important rites of passage here, were supposed to take place last week. Instead, an earthquake cracked open the elementary school, and a wall of water swept away homes and families of teachers and students alike. Although no Hashikami elementary students were killed, the body of a ninth grader was identified over the weekend, and two others remain missing.

For parents and teachers, holding the graduation celebrations under those circumstances — and their own — was an act of will, even bravery.

“We thought maybe it was too early for the ceremony,” said Hiroko Sugawara, the ninth-grade principal. “But people in the community and the P.T.A. said, ‘We want to celebrate for these kids, because this is a cruel experience for a 15-year-old.’ I want the surviving kids to shine — to continue their lives.”

Ms. Sugawara’s sister and brother have been missing since the tsunami struck, and her house was washed away. Of the two other teachers who played leading roles in the ceremony, one lost his house, and the other’s parental home, in Rikuzentakata, was all but wiped out.

As the 28 ninth graders awaited their diplomas, Shunichi Hatakeyama, 48, sat centered in the front row of parents, holding a photograph of his 15-year-old son, Fumiya. The youngest of three sons, a big, good-looking center fielder on the city youth baseball team, Fumiya was with his mother, Akiko, when the tsunami struck. The two fled separately to high ground. Only she made it.

On Tuesday, Mr. Hatakeyama wore Fumiya’s blue athletic shirt and white sneakers. “My son is still missing. If I don’t come, nobody will take his diploma,” he said.

“I want him to come back. My wife wants to hug him. She is totally lost.”

And while the 42 sixth graders fidgeted in their chairs, Ken Miura, a 37-year-old hotel cook and volunteer fireman, sat in the back row of parents. His 12-year-old son, Takumi, is still recovering.

The two were at home, not five minutes from school, when the tsunami warning sounded.

Mr. Miura rushed to evacuate neighbors on lower ground, never believing the water could reach his home. He was carried out to sea in an automobile, and Takumi was swept into the ocean for an hour before he was rescued, naked and debris-battered, by firemen.

Takumi was taken to relatives in a distant town, in shock and unable even to talk for days. When he began to speak, “he said he wanted to come to the ceremony,” Mr. Miura said, “but I couldn’t get the gasoline to go to him.” The disaster has effectively dried up gasoline supplies for all but emergency permit holders.

Teachers handed over his son’s diploma in a private ceremony after the public one.

Past graduations were ritual new beginnings, the teachers said, but Tuesday’s may be different. Whereas past classes generally stayed together during their school years, the disaster already has scattered students to evacuation centers, and many may wind up in other towns.

The students here made determined efforts to remain upbeat. But many proved unable to hold back tears, whether singing school songs or joining in the brief after-graduation party.

“They tried not to show their sadness, but we couldn’t see them smiling,” said Yasuyuki Toba, one of the ninth-grade teachers who led the ceremony. So to end the party, he led a chant for the students clustered around him.

“Let’s meet again!” he shouted.

The students shouted in unison: “Let’s meet again!”




6 responses to “KESENNUMA!

  1. Even though there have been terrible things happening in Japan I’m happy that they are continuing to have school. Schooling is gonna help there economy in the future. I was really inspired when Takumi Miura, even though he was injured and in shock, he wanted to go to the ceremony. This shows that people aren’t mourning over them selfs and making an effort to get over this obsticle and move on.

  2. I really like that fact that as a nation Japan is not giving and moving forward. Japan is showing more character and bravery then the world has seen in years. The country of Japan is going about this tragedy in the right fashion. The upbeat fashion that the students are going about is wonderful.

  3. This article shows how bad things in Japan really are. Even though they are getting help from other countries and organizations, they continue to try to get things back to normal by themselves. This tragedy will leave lasting scars that will still be seen after many generations. I think that other countries should look at Japan and try to be more like them with all of the heart and strength that they have shown throughout these terrible months.

  4. I think that everything that has taken place in Japan is really sad. I also think it is good that they are making an effort to move on. Despite all of the things that were torn apart and taken away from them, they aren’t just putting up the white flag and saying, “We surrender.” Many people in many countries would so that but in Japan, the people have such strong wills that they aren’t giving up. Especially all of the young kids who are being so brave in the time of extreme trouble for their country. I was really inspired when Takumi Miura, even though he was injured and in shock, he wanted to go to the ceremony. It shows that they are no just feeling sorry for themselves, they are making an effort to get over this hurdle in their lives and move on.

    • I agree with your first sentence. Very inspirational.

    • I agree with James. This whole thing is really sad and they need a lot of help. But what I find most inspirational about Japan is that they continue to help themselves even though they have tons of help already. They also are in lots of danger because of the nuclear reactor meltdown thing. I hope that Japan gets through all of this smoothly and as soon as possible.

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