Japan beyond 3.11 Stories of Recovery


This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on June 9, 2014

Tomorrow Logo

Accepting and Telling the Stories about the Disaster

“Don’t take away my hometown!” I cry,
reaching out my hands


Up above the rubble,
I see carp banners flying in the sky


Floating in the seawater,
the lilies of the valley are blooming


Feelings of loss, sadness and hope regarding the 3.11 disaster are expressed in the limited words of haiku poems. They were written by students of Onagawa Junior High School in Miyagi Prefecture.  They wrote about the hometown they had lost and the people they loved.


“In spite of the disaster, the sea is always shining brightly. It’s all gone now, but there used to be a lively town and people here...”
(Akari: Onagawa Junior High School graduate)


“Times were hard, so we needed to write haiku. Then we could tell the world what was happening here.”
(Ryo: Onagawa Junior High School graduate)

Class photo

The students wrote these words in a haiku class that started a few months after the disaster. They carefully selected the words that best expressed their feelings.

Written photos

Unspoken feelings of sadness, loss, hope and yearning came out in their poems.

Toshiro Sato

“We thought that the students needed to confront reality, and look into themselves. I told them that they could write anything, or nothing.”
(Toshiro Sato: Former teacher at Onagawa Junior High School)

Desolate scenes outside the school

The students wrote their haiku while gazing out across the decimated town from the classroom window.


The disaster taught me
the preciousness of everyday life


The spring air pushes me forward


Three years after the disaster, the children still write haiku in their classroom.

Morley Robertson with students

American journalist Morley Robertson meets the students, and finds out how they are trying to accept and tell the stories of the disaster in their own words.


Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. This is Morley’s second visit here since the disaster.


“I was here three years ago, a few months after the disaster, and that was in 2011. Now it’s 2014, early summer, and what strikes me is how all the debris is gone, and what is absent, besides the debris being absent, is the smell, because the tsunami struck, there was mud, seawater, some things had decayed, and it was just the wrong kind of smell. I was told that they were going to raise the land level, the ground level, in anticipation of future disasters, and the level is going to be really high, it’s going to be way high over where I’m standing, my height. So the entire town is going to elevate.”
(Morley Robertson: Reporter)


Onagawa Junior High School stands on high ground overlooking the construction work going on all over the town.

Baseball players

Most of the 200 students lost family members and friends in the disaster.

Morley sees the haiku

Entering the school, Morley immediately finds the students’ haiku posted all over the wall.

Morley with haiku

“Wow, a mural. These are a bunch of haikus, these are collections of short poems by the students I guess.

Morley with haiku

So here it says 'We are the stars of hope for Onagawa,' that’s one poem, and someone else wrote, 'All our hopes have now become debris,' so you’ve got this contrast.”
(Morley Robertson)

Students in haiku class

The haiku classes were started in May 2011, just two months after the disaster. Since then, they have been held twice a year, and all the students write haiku.

I will protect my family from future tsunami

A teacher

The teachers just watch over their efforts, but they do not give any instructions.


Although three years have passed, many students still write about the disaster.

I intend to bloom in this town...

March 11, 2011

March 11, 2011

On March 11, 2011, Onagawa was swallowed up by a massive tsunami over 14 meters high. More than 800 of the town’s population of 10,000 lost their lives.


Many evacuees rushed to the hill where the school stands.

Dead bodies were also brought there.

Evacuation HQ at the school

An emergency headquarters was set up on the second floor of the school building.

Evacuees at the school

The teachers tried hard to get information on the condition of all the students and their families. Many students lost their homes and had to stay in shelters.

Entrace ceremony

Based on the belief that the children really needed to return to school, Onagawa Junior High School started up again just one month after the disaster, earlier than any of the other schools in the disaster-stricken area.

Toshiro Sato

One of the teachers, Toshiro Sato, started the haiku class because he thought that the students needed to confront the reality of the terrible disaster.

Sato in class

He moved to another school this spring, but he vividly remembers about that first haiku class. At the beginning of the class, Toshiro showed the students a photograph of Onagawa before the disaster.

Empty classroom

They all stared at it in silence. Toshiro was not sure how the students would react.

Toshiro Sato

“I didn’t know what kind of words they would use in a situation like that. I was worried that it might be hard for some of them to express their feelings. I suggested they should write words in their notebooks at first. Then they could rearrange their words into 17-syllable haiku and write their poem on a piece of paper. I told them to raise their hands if they had any questions. They all started writing immediately! They started writing in their notebooks and counting syllables, trying to find the right words.”
(Toshiro Sato)


The disaster could not destroy our dreams

Thank you, from now on, I will do my best

“The students had so much to write. If I’d asked them to write essays, they could have produced hundreds of pages. But because they were asked to write in a limited numbers of words, they got really immersed.”
(Toshiro Sato)


From the window, I can see our future town

I heard about the day
when our house would be demolished

“We all lose words when we are shocked... The situation we were in left us all speechless for months, children and adults. The students expressed their feelings for the first time in the haiku class. I myself thought that I really needed to confront the situation. Only then could I put the shock behind me and move on.”
(Toshiro Sato)

Mizuho Sato

Toshiro lost his daughter Mizuho in the disaster.

Ishinomaki Elementary School

That day, she was at her elementary school in the neighboring town of Ishinomaki. She failed to escape and lost her life in the tsunami.

An old schoolbag

As a teacher, it was extremely difficult for Toshiro to accept the fact that his daughter had lost her life while at school.

“The students told me it was really hard to talk about what happened. But they felt they had to communicate their sadness to the future generations. So that a tragedy like this wouldn’t happen again. Because it’s painful. That’s the way they feel. I realized that is true. I realized that the sadness, the sadness of losing someone very dear to you is not something that you can get over. But somehow or other you have to live with that pain, you have to live with that pain and move ahead with your life the best you can.”
(Toshiro Sato)


Despite his daughter’s death, Toshiro tried to stay close to his students. They all knew about his situation.

One student wrote this haiku:


We are looking at the same sky as those
now far away


Onagawa is located on a deeply-indented coastline and the residents lived from the bounties of the ocean. The narrow, curved bays increased the height of the tsunami and the ensuing damage.

Onagawa bay

The tsunami wiped out entire families in some of the bays.


Since last autumn, stone monuments have been erected on the hillsides of the bays around Onagawa.

They were made by the students of Onagawa Junior High School, who raised money to build them to show where the tsunami reached.

Morley with a student

“Is this the height the tsunami reached?”
(Morley Robertson)

“Yes, it is.”
(Abe: Teacher)


The students engraved strong words of warning on the stones: “Run to higher ground than this!”

Airi Katsumata

“If we forget what happened, the tragedy might be repeated. I didn’t want that to happen again.”
(Airi Katsumata: Student)

Students with a monument

Onagawa had been struck by other large tsunami several times in the past. However, the damagecaused had largely been forgotten. That is why the students wanted to engrave their haiku to remind people of the awful tragedy.

Morley with a monument

“Haiku here, chiseled in, etched in, and to roughly translate it into English, it says “I have come home, but I cannot hear the voices which I want to hear.”
(Morley Robertson)

Bottles mark where somebody lost their life

The more than 800 people who died all lived their lives here in Onagawa.

Akari Kimura

Akari Kimura wrote the haiku engraved on one stone monument. She was in the eighth grade at the time of the disaster.

She loved the liveliness of the port town.

Akari Kimura

“There were lots of stores and houses around here. And my friends’ houses were over there. Now there’s only the sound of construction work, but there used to be the sounds of people laughing and children playing.”
(Akari Kimura: Onagawa Junior High School graduate)

Akari's haiku

Akari was thinking about those who passed away when she wrote her haiku.

“I’m home!” But the voices
I want to hear can be heard no more

Onagawa gymnasium

On the day of the disaster, Akari and her classmates evacuated to the town gymnasium and she spent the night there. It’s been three years since she last came here.

Akari Kimura

“We were all sitting here. That clock is just as it was then. We didn’t look at the clock until after the tsunami hit. Minute by minute, the time passed so slowly.”
(Akari Kimura)

Evacuees in the gym

Time seemed to stop that night. Akari shed no tears at the time.

“I didn't cry for a while. But the next day, when we were moving from the gymnasium to the school, my mother came to pick me up. When I saw her, I cried for the first time.”
(Akari Kimura)

All those around Akari lost someone dear to them. All of her own family members survived, so she hesitated to write about the disaster.

“I wasn't sure what to write at first. I hadn't lost my house or my family. Mr. Sato, our teacher, didn't show his sadness. I was worried that my haiku might make him sad. I thought hard about whether or not it would torture him, but... I decided I should hand it in. It expressed how I was feeling.”
(Akari Kimura)


“I’m home!” But the voices
I want to hear can be heard no more

People come home, and there are people waiting for them there. Akari realized that such simple parts of daily life are really priceless.

Radio in Onagawa

“Hi, everyone, it’s time for ‘Onagawa Now Sunday.’”
(Radio Voice)

Morley meets another student who was in the haiku class.

Announcers at an Onagawa radio station

“Hello everyone. It’s Sunday, May 18. This weekly program is presented by local high school students. Today’s presenters are Ryo Tanno, Eri Goto and Aoi Nakamura. We have a special guest today...”
(Radio Voice)

Announcers introduce Morley

“Hello, I’m Morley Robertson.”
(Morley Robertson)

“You’re an American journalist and DJ?”
(Ryo Tanno)

“Yes, I do radio work and also Internet radio.”
(Morley Robertson)

This high school student who does a volunteer work at the local radio station is Ryo Tanno.

Ryo Tanno

“This is my hometown where I was born and grew up. My parents also grew up here. We have lots of memories of this place. Just because the town’s disappeared doesn’t mean our memories have gone, too.”
(Ryo Tanno)


Ryo wrote the following haiku.

I had a fight with my brother
for the first time in a long while

Onagawa bay

Ryo’s house was located more than one kilometer away from the sea, but the area was swallowed up by the tsunami.

Morley with Ryo

Ryo’s family members all survived, but they had to live in a shelter.

“After the disaster, my parents told me not to leave the shelter. But I went to see my house secretly. There was nothing left.”
(Ryo Tanno)

The lot where Ryo's house once stood

The lot where Ryo's house once stood

Ryo tried to express the experience of losing ordinary family life in his haiku.

Morley with Ryo

“Your haiku really sticks in my mind. You have to think twice to get the meaning.”
(Morley Robertson)

“At first glance, people don’t think it’s related to the disaster. A student from another school added, ‘Having a fight is a happy thing.’ Before the disaster, my brother and I had fights all the time.”
(Ryo Tanno)

“How old is he?”
(Morley Robertson)

“We’re one year apart.”
(Ryo Tanno)

“No wonder.”
(Morley Robertson)

“People always said we were good brothers. Before the disaster, I wasn’t so sure about that. But after the disaster, I realized that having a fight is really a happy thing. Being able to fight meant that we were back to normal. That’s what my haiku is about.”
(Ryo Tanno)


I had a fight with my brother
for the first time in a long while

Ryo discovered the preciousness of the very ordinary fact of fighting with his brother.


This May, a festival was held down at the beach for the first time in three years. The lively festival sounds had returned.


Feelings of hope are also appearing in the students’ haiku.


Where is the person
that I saw in my dream?


I will protect my family
from future tsunami


Like the flowers, I will shoot and bloom...

Toshiro Sato

The legacy of teacher Toshiro Sato has been passed on.

Takefumi Ishikawa

“There may be things the students can’t say because time has passed. I hope this class will provide opportunities for them to speak out.”
(Takefumi Ishikawa: Teacher)


The students’ haiku also supported Toshiro himself to get through a very difficult time.

Haiku on the wall

Nearly 2,000 haiku have been written by the students during the last three years.

Toshiro Sato in class

“Which haiku sticks in your mind?”
(Program director)

“There are so many... But this one... ‘I must now accept an Onagawa that I have never seen before’ is my favorite. I thought the fact that the student chose the word ‘accept’ was amazing. The word wasn’t ‘sad’ or ‘incredible’ or ‘resilient’ or ‘regrettable,’ but ‘accept.’ Out of all the possible words, the student chose that word. This haiku really spoke to me about how I was feeling and my situation. I realized I had to accept reality and think about what I should do in the future. I shouldn’t turn my eyes away. I think the students really taught me and supported me.”
(Toshiro Sato)

Sato's haiku

It was a long time before Toshiro could express his feelings. But in the autumn of 2011, he was finally able to write this haiku.

After eight months,
memories are deeply engraved in my heart

Toshiro Sato

Morley summarises

“I remember one of the haiku by a student at the Onagawa middle school. In English, it would be something like, “I must now accept an Onagawa that I have never seen before.” This township was destroyed by the tsunami, and now they have to rebuild the entire town.The teenagers, through writing haiku, or by erecting these stone monuments, they’re trying to find ways to accept an Onagawa that was never before. But through these expressions, healing can take place, and also through teamwork, collective healing that can happen through this teamwork, the teenagers seem to be leading their community into the future.”
(Morley Robertson)

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