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Ayaka's Story of Survival, Loss and Remembrance

Photographer: Kimimasa Mayama


The tsunami overwhelmed Yoshimaha elementary school in Ishinomaki on 11 March 2011. As the tsunami hit, Ayaka evacuated to the third floor of the school with four other schoolchildren and 10 teachers. But it was not enough to escape the tsunami. They had to climb onto the rooftop of the school building. From there they watched as the tsunami attacked and devastated other buildings. They spent the night on the rooftop of the school building, warming themselves by a makeshift fire.


On 12 February 2012, Ayaka Sasaki, visited the graves of her father and grandfather who were killed by the tsunami. She also visited Jizo, which is most popular Buddhist bodhisattvas in Japan, set up by her grandfather.


Ayaka and her surviving family members moved from Ishinomaki to the next city of Higashimatsushima in April 2011. After visiting the family grave, Ayaka said "I want to touch my old elementary school." Her mother Kaori looked at her daughter and asked "Are you all right?" Ayaka replied and repeated her wish, "Yes, mom. I want to return to and watch the school for my memory." Kaori said "Okay. Let's go together." Ayaka returned to the school for the first time since March 12, 2011.


During that cold night on the school roof, Ayaka worried how her father, mother, brother, grandmother and grandfather were. Her mother was a teacher at Yoshihama junior high school and father was a teacher at Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki. Her five-year-old brother Sotaro was at a nursery school. Her grandmother Chiyoko was in Sendai to attend a graduation ceremony of her junior high school grandson. Her grandfather was at home.


When Ayaka’s grandmother Chiyoko returned the next day she discovered that her house had been swept away by the tsunami. Only the basement remained. Chiyoko believed that her husband picked up her granddaughter and grandson and that they were safe. She met Ayaka and Sotaro in the afternoon on March 12. But she could not see her husband. Chiyoko, Ayaka and Sotaro evacuated together to a makeshift evacuation center.


They hoped to meet their missing family members at the center. Ayaka’s mother Kaori rejoined them three days after the tsunami. Kaori knew that Okawa elementary school, where her husband worked, was devastated by the tsunami. They could not get any other information about the school as the bridge crossing over the Kitakami River had collapsed.


Eleven days after the tsunami, Ayaka found out about the death of her father. Okawa elementary school was swept away by the tsunami. In total 70 of the 108 school children at Okawa Elementary school were killed by the tsunami and four are still missing, whilst 10 of 11 teachers were killed whilst one remains missing.


On March 22, Chiyoko Sasaki, Ayaka's grandmother found Ayaka's father, Takashi, at a makeshift morgue in Ishinomaki high school. "Only five people were allowed to go to morgues to search for their family members every day due to a lack of gas for cars" Chiyoko Sasaki said "I remember the days I had been to morgues to search for my husband and my daughter's husband with sadness and regret."


When Ayaka returned to the old school of Yoshihama elementary school, she dashed up stairs to the rooftop where she had spent the night of the tsunami with four schoolmates and ten teachers struggling against the cold. She retold the story of her survival to her mother and brother. During the visit Ayaka said "I am satisfied to return to my old school for the first time since last March 12 when I escaped from the school for evacuation."