Hana Suzuki would have been in the fifth grade this year and her older brother, Kento, in the seventh at their elementary school in a wooded valley not far from the sea.
But on March 11, an earthquake-triggered tsunami swept through the grounds of the Okawa primary school, bringing death and loss as it devastated Japan’s northeastern coastline.
In all, 74 students died at Okawa, including Hana, a girl who wore blue bows in her braided hair, and Kento, a husky boy who liked to practice judo kicks. All but one of a dozen teachers were killed as well.
Thirty-four students escaped the tsunami and have returned to makeshift classrooms in another part of town. But some families, like Yoshiaki Suzuki and his wife, Miho, have no children left to send there.
Kento’s body was found a week later, but Hana’s is still missing, a void that paralyzes her parents.
“Time has stopped,” says Yoshiaki Suzuki, a slight, grim-faced building industry worker. “Her classmates are older now, but Hana is still in the fourth grade. Her mother can hear her voice as she got on her bicycle each morning, saying, ‘I’m leaving now. See you, Mom.’”
Nearly nine months after the disaster, the Okawa primary school also still grapples with what the tsunami did. The sole surviving teacher quit and left town. The principal, who was away from the school on March 11, turns down interview requests. People don’t want to talk about moving on, he says, waving away reporters, because most of them can’t.
Ishinomaki, a city of 160,000 about 220 miles northeast of Tokyo, was one of the worst-hit towns in the disaster. More than 3,000 people died here and 2,770 remain missing. About 29,000 families lost their homes.
Perhaps no one suffered more than the Suzukis. Losing their tiny house to the floodwater, they now live in a prefab apartment and face a reminder of their loss each time they encounter surviving students and their thankful parents. The families they once saw regularly at judo matches and ballet performances now avoid their gaze, as if feeling guilty about their good fortune.
At first the Suzukis harbored jealousy, asking under their breath, “Why did your child survive and not mine?” They blamed the school for failing to usher the students to higher ground before the flood came.
But in recent months, they’ve come to realize that they weren’t the only ones whose lives were damaged by the disaster.
The earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. As the Okawa school building shook, students followed strict disaster rules: Hide under desks until the trembling stopped, then file outside to the playground to wait for help.
But the rules didn’t apply in this catastrophe. Within half an hour, waves rushed into the playground, overcoming the terrified group, submerging most and carrying others away.
The flood also washed away roads and a nearby bridge. Parents waded into the brown water to help the search as, one by one, small bodies were pulled from the mud. Workers eventually located all but four of the dead students and teachers.
Miho Suzuki quit her job as a hospital receptionist because her grief was so overwhelming. The calendar became her enemy, marking time forever lost with her children. She was obsessed by memories. But without the old family house, Miho couldn’t go to her children’s rooms, sit on their beds and hold close the things they had last touched.
The Suzukis kept their distance from the temporary school so she wouldn’t have to endure chance meetings with happy families, or hear about the school barbecues and sports events that no longer included her.
She rarely went outside anyway. In a corner of the cramped three-room unit, she built an altar to her children. Next to their last school portraits, she assembled a collection of old photographs, prize possessions she had salvaged after the tsunami.
There’s Kento, at first impossibly skinny, with his face later filling out in adolescence. To his mother, he will always be the sweet boy who loved to demonstrate his killer karate kicks.
And little Hana, first as a vulnerable infant, working her pacifier, and later atop the cherished bike she rode to school each day.
At first, the photo work soothed Miho. Then the anger returned.
“Why?” she questioned the heavens, kneeling at her altar. “Why did you have to take both of them? Couldn’t you have just left me just one?”
Then in May, school officials told her that Arashi, a Japanese boy band that had been a favorite of her children, had sent a condolence letter. They asked her to pick it up.
Miho didn’t want to go but reluctantly drove to a site where four rooms are set aside for Okawa students. Outside one of the classrooms, she heard voices she recognized, friends of her son. One, that of Kento’s best friend, broke her heart. But there was something missing: laughter.
She picked up the letter and hurried home, but on the way, a thought invaded her grief. She realized that even “the lucky children” were suffering.
She was suddenly relieved that she hadn’t seen Kento’s friends, not for her own sake, but for that of the children, who might have been struck by such a sad reminder of their trauma.
“I realized that we all experienced this tragic loss,” she said.
Eventually, Miho learned that teachers leading students from the school had desperately tried to find higher ground but were blocked by fallen trees. The surviving instructor had single-handedly saved the lives of seven students.
When she consulted a psychic about her daughter, she was told Hana was there next to her with an urgent message: Don’t blame the teachers.
“She said the teachers are still wailing over the loss of so many children,” Miho recalled. “Even though they’re in heaven, they have no peace.”
On the tsunami’s five-month anniversary, the Suzukis were invited to a ceremony in honor of the dead schoolchildren.
Miho went because of her children, especially Hana. “I felt she would be angry at me if we didn’t go,” she said.
At the event, parents and students rose to talk about their grief. When it was Miho’s turn, she described a July night she saw the faces of dead students in the stars — not just her own children but also their classmates.
“‘We’re here, you don’t have to worry about us,’ they said,” she related. “‘Don’t be sad, you can always look up and see us.’”
As Miho Suzuki has released her anger toward the living, she is finding consolation by being with the families of the dead.
On a recent day, she arrived at the abandoned Okawa school site to assist a clutch of parents still searching for their children. Together, they waded through low-lying areas of the grounds that remain submerged.
“Hana is here with the others,” she said. “And we will find them.”