Tsunami-affected coastal area becomes new destination for Japanese school trips

Tokyo and Kyoto have long been popular destinations for annual school trips to Japan. But this year, many tours to these cities have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This has led some teachers to organize field trips closer to home, such as to northeastern Japan, where trips to areas hit by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami are increasingly popular.

Change of plan

Students at Murone Middle School in an interior region of Iwate Prefecture rarely have the opportunity to see the Pacific Ocean. But when their school trip to Tokyo was canceled this year, they got the chance to participate in a special study trip organized by a local railway company. The Sanriku Railway passes through the tsunami affected areas along the coast of the prefecture.

Reconstruction work near Rikuzen-Akasaki station in Iwate prefecture.

Suzuki Shiho is the teacher who organized the trip. For years, she was only able to inform students of the disaster in class, as the school’s tight schedule prevented her from taking them to coastal areas. But the coronavirus pandemic gave it an unexpected opening.

“This trip replaces the one in Tokyo, so it would have made sense to choose another fun place,” says Suzuki. “But I thought it was more important to give them a chance to see the coast and learn more about the devastation.”

Two days before the trip, Suzuki Shiho explains why his students will be visiting the disaster areas.

Learn to rebuild

The Sanriku Railway has been organizing study visits since 2012. The company’s tracks and stations were badly damaged by the tsunami, but they resumed some services five days later, becoming a beacon of hope for the inhabitants of the region.

Yamakage Yasuaki is the tour guide for the Murone college trip. It indicates the developments that the pupils must note along the way.
“Construction work to raise the road is ongoing,” he said. “I think it will take another two years.”

The tour helps students understand the reality of life in coastal areas, where restoration efforts are still underway nearly a decade after the disaster.

Yamakage Yasuaki, a tour guide with the Sanriku Railroad, explains the extent of the tsunami damage as the train passes through affected areas.

Memories of the day

Next stop is the Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum, which opened in September of last year.

Suzuki isn’t the only teacher who thinks it’s important to educate students about the disaster. More than 60 schools visited the museum in October, almost six times more than last year.

The Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum in Rikuzentakata aims to pass on the lessons of the 2011 tsunami to future generations.

“It’s been almost 10 years since the disaster and some children don’t even know about it,” says Kumagai Masanori, deputy director of the museum. “They need to understand the importance of life and learn disaster prevention from an early age. We have a responsibility to teach them.

Suzuki shows the students pictures of the tsunami. She obtained prior permission from parents and guardians, as the images are disturbing.

The museum features a seven-minute video of the tsunami hitting the coastal region.

“In nature anything can happen, and I think it’s scary,” says 14-year-old Endo Ryota. He says he still vividly remembers how the familiar streets of the coastal town where his grandfather lived were completely changed by the tsunami.

Oyama Kira, 15, lived inland in 2011 and did not experience the real tsunami. But she remembers the massive earthquake and the power outages that followed.

“I think this experience will help me if there is another disaster,” Oyama says. “And I was able to learn what happened because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a good opportunity to learn. “

Oyama Kira, right, watches a video of the tsunami.

Learn close to home

“Some students told me it was an important trip,” Suzuki says. “We only see the part of the world in front of us as we go about our lives. So I think it was a good opportunity to learn more about the coastal areas that are so close and yet so far away.

Tokyo might have been the city they all couldn’t wait to visit, but staying close to home gave Suzuki and his students an experience they will not soon forget.

Students learned more than expected by staying close to home.
Watch video: 03:55

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