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

Tokyo and Kyoto have long been among the favored destinations for annual school trips within Japan. But this year, many visits to these cities have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s led some teachers to organize excursions closer to home, such as in northeastern Japan, where journeys to areas struck by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami are becoming increasingly popular.

Change of plans

Students of Murone Middle School from an inland region of Iwate Prefecture rarely have the opportunity to see the Pacific Ocean. But when their school trip to Tokyo was cancelled this year, they got a chance to take a special study tour organized by a local railway company instead. The Sanriku Railway travels through the tsunami-hit 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 teach students about the disaster from the classroom because the school's tight schedule prevented her from taking them to the coastal areas. But the coronavirus pandemic provided her with an unexpected opening.

“This trip is replacing the one to Tokyo, so it would have been logical 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 about the devastation."

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

Learning about reconstruction

The Sanriku Railway has run study tours since 2012. The company’s tracks and stations were severely damaged by the tsunami, but it resumed some services just five days later, becoming something of a beacon of hope for the people of the area.

Yamakage Yasuaki is the tour guide for the Murone Middle School trip. He points out developments for the students to note along the way.
“Construction work to raise the road is underway,” he says. “I think it will take another two years.”

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

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

Memories of the day

The next stop is the Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum, which opened in September last year.

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

The Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum in Rikuzentakata aims to pass on lessons from 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, the museum’s deputy director. “They need to understand the importance of life and learn about disaster prevention from an early age. We have a responsibility to teach them.”

Suzuki shows the students footage from the tsunami. She obtained permission from parents and guardians beforehand, 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 that's scary,” says 14-year-old Endo Ryota. He says he still vividly remembers how the familiar streets in the coastal town where his grandfather lived were completely changed by the tsunami.

15-year-old Oyama Kira lived inland in 2011 and didn’t experience the actual tsunami. But she recalls the massive earthquake and the power outages that followed.

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

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

Learning close to home

“Some students told me it was a meaningful trip,” says Suzuki. “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 about the coastal areas that are so close, and yet so far away.”

Tokyo may have been the city they were all eager to visit, but by staying close to home, Suzuki and her students had an experience they will not soon forget.

The students learned more than expected by staying close to home.
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