When a classroom is turned into a museum

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The four-storey Arahama Elementary School building that has been turned into a monument to remember the 2011 earthquake.

By OFANI EREMAE

IT once served a thriving community of 2,200 residents.

But today the four-storey Arahama Elementary School, near Sendai city in Japan’s north, stood quiet as a monument left in memory of those who lost their lives in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake in the Arahama area.

“It’s no longer used as a school,” Takayama Tomoyuki, who took a group of visiting journalists from the Pacific and Caribbean on a guided tour of the building, explained.

The journalists are in Japan on a 10-day media fellowship funded by the Association for Promotion of International Cooperation (APIC).

Tomoyuki said after the tsunami flattened the Arahama area, located just 700 metres from the Pacific Ocean’s coastline, residents of the area sat and discussed the future of the school.

“After much discussion, locals resolved to close the school and turned it into a museum,” he added.

That was because the neighborhood has been designated a high-risk area for disasters, so many former residents have resettled further inland, in the Arai Station area.

Arahama Elementary has served its residents since 1873. It is the oldest elementary school in the area.

Like many residents of the coastal areas of Sendai, Tomoyuki remembered the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and 8.4 metre high tsunami well, which hit the region on 11 March 2011.

“It came from that direction,” he said, pointing to the southern direction, just 700 metres down the road, where the tsunami, which caused the destruction, came.

“It brought with it debris and cars, and left them inside the first floor of the building,” Tomoyuki said.

“You see the sign up there, this is where the tsunami reached,” he added, pointing to the second floor of the classroom building.

Although one female student lost her life in the disaster, Arahama Elementary School had in fact saved 320 people on that day, who took shelter in the upper classrooms.

They include children, teachers and other evacuees, who made it to the building just before the tsunami came.

The 320 remained in the classroom until rescue helicopters came and got them out to safety throughout the night.

The first and second floors of the school were flooded by the tsunami.

Visitors can see the ripped floor tiles and bowed blackboards in the first-floor classrooms, and the high water mark of the tsunami on the second floor.

On the undamaged upper floors, each classroom has been converted into an exhibition space.

There is a room which plays films showing how people survived at Arahama on March 11, with footage of the school surrounded by the ocean.

In another room, a detailed 3D model memoralizes the homes and businesses that once stood in Arahama.

The buckled, dirty clock which marks the moment everything changed is preserved in a glass cabinet in a room on the fourth floor, alongside other relics of the destruction and educational displays about disaster prevention.

On the wall in the hallway of the second floor, hangs a plastic sign showing the high-water mark of the tsunami, which was 4.6 meters high when it struck the school. It was double that when it initially hit the beach

From the roof-top, there are clear views of the ocean, the ongoing recovery-related construction taking place, and 10 kilometers in the distance, downtown Sendai.

In the space between the ocean and the school, Tomoyuki spoke of the once thriving community of 2,200 residents and 800 houses.

Today, only swathes of sectioned blocks where families once lived, now transformed into a dried-out manicured grassland with no meaningful signs of the thriving life that once existed there.  

On the morning the journalists visited the school, there were many people who came to the school to learn about the tsunami, as well as those who came to pay their respects.

The reality of this beautiful school, which has served its residents for almost two centuries, being turned into a monument is unthinkable.

But with the neighbourhood now declared unliveable, Tomoyuki says turning the four-storey Arahama Elementary School building into a monument was the best way to remember a disaster that had claimed so many lives and changed the course of history.

turned into a museum


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