- - Thursday, April 21, 2011

NOBIRU, JAPAN — In Japan’s rigid education system, principals, teachers and students are supposed to follow official policy without question.

So when a huge earthquake shook Nobiru elementary school for three minutes on March 11, Principal Michiko Kishima didn’t march everyone up the road to the hills behind her school.

Sticking to official instructions, she herded about 350 people into the government-designated evacuation site — the school’s gymnasium — where many would drown or freeze to death on a night of terror that continues to haunt educators.

In a village of 800 where officials said police have identified at least 260 bodies, many are questioning official preparations and decisions as well as Japan’s education system as a whole. It teaches people to obey orders without the type of independent thinking that could have saved many lives across northeastern Japan.

Others are praising the perseverance of Mrs. Kishima, 22 teachers and about 70 heroic students whose quick thinking saved themselves and others during a nine-hour ordeal.

Interviewed in a municipal building where classes were set to begin Thursday, Mrs. Kishima massaged her swollen hands as she explained her actions.

“We didn’t think about fleeing up the mountain. We were prepared for aftershocks, not a tsunami,” said Mrs. Kishima, 54, who became principal three years ago.

“If we had more information, we would have gone up the mountain road. But there was no information, so I had to follow official policy.”

When the quake hit at 2:46 p.m., about 70 students were still at school preparing for a graduation ceremony. Mrs. Kishima immediately ushered her pupils safely outside the three-story building.

Gazing at the narrow mountain road only a few steps away, she worried about landslides, which often kill during quakes in Japan. During a series of severe aftershocks, Mrs. Kishima tried to keep the students calm and organized.

“There was panic,” she said.

She led students into the school’s gymnasium in a separate building on campus, about two miles from the sea.

“I thought even if a tsunami came, it would only reach up to our shins,” she said, citing false alarms in the past.

Unable to use mobile phones or radio transmitters, she did not know what many around the world knew: A monstrous tsunami was heading their way.

Within minutes, many residents, doing what they practiced during earthquake drills, drove from lowlands to higher ground in the school parking lot.

Mrs. Kishima urged them to come inside for safety. Doing as told, they filed onto the gym’s basketball court and were joined by people in wheelchairs and students coming back to the school with their parents.

Preparing for a cold night without electricity, women began to set up cooking gear, and dutiful students put down exercise mats for residents of a nearby nursing home.

When Yuki Ninomiya, 83, arrived by car with friends from another village, the gym was packed. While many waited in warm cars, others, noticing tsunami warnings on car navigation systems, tried to get into the three-story school. But the doors were locked, several survivors recalled.

As people ran toward campus to evade the rising waters, teachers rushed to unlock the school doors.

“A man yelled, ‘A tsunami’s coming. Get into the school quick, ” said Mrs. Ninomiya, sitting in a cold evacuation center nearby.

“Everybody was rushing up the stairs saying, ‘Grandma, are you OK?’ I was the last one up, and the tsunami pushed me up the last steps to the third floor,” she said.

Out the window, she watched young men and women throw a rope to rescue an elderly woman and her dog from the swirling black water.

Below in the crowded gym, Mrs. Kishima saw her car and other vehicles floating in the water.

“It’s a tsunami. Climb onto the stage! Climb onto the stage!” she hollered into a microphone.

Submerged to chest level, she dropped a heavy bag full of keys. A student pulled her up onto the stage as others ran upstairs in the corners of the gym to a second level called “the gallery.”

“I was saved, and then I saved somebody,” said Mrs. Kishima. “Everybody did like that.”

Using newly purchased stage curtains and graduation ceremony banners, students and teachers pulled up people floating on mats or struggling in the churning water and debris.

With no room to move, about 330 people crammed into the narrow gallery just above the lapping water. Amid aftershocks for the next nine hours, they stood shivering in wet clothes in total darkness.

“The kids were so scared, but they stayed organized,” she said.

Some chanted, “Nobiru students, fight on!”

Mrs. Kishima said she saw at least 12 senior citizens drown, and others may have been swept outside the gym. At least eight other seniors died of hypothermia next to the children on the gallery in freezing temperatures, she said.

She said that all her school’s staff and students in the gym survived.

“When people died around them, the kids said, ‘Have a good sleep. I’m sorry.’ They were very good kids,” she said.

The water began to recede at 10:30 that night. Rescuers struggled to get through the debris of cars and pulverized buildings. On a makeshift bridge of wood, they worked well past midnight carrying out babies, then mothers, the wounded, students, elder adults and younger ones and, finally, the school staff.

The survivors limped up the road that would have spared them the ordeal in the first place.

Takashi Takayama, a local government official, defended Mrs. Kishima’s actions, saying they were all following a 2008 evacuation plan that indicated the elementary school would be outside a tsunami’s reach.

Asked whether the official policy was wrong, Vice Principal Yoshiki Sugawara said, “No. The problem was, the tsunami was too high.”

Upon returning to the disaster zone, Mrs. Kishima said she was disgusted to see the dilapidated gym still reeking of death.

“It’s a shock for all of us, and we are all traumatized. It was terrible for kids to experience such a life-and-death event. We are going to have to take care of their hearts, not just teaching them reading or writing.”

Student Urara Ninomiya said, “I just want to see the smiling faces of my friends again, just like before.”

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