Tokyo Tech Volunteer Group leads tour to areas hit by Great East Japan Earthquake

On March 9 and 10, the Tokyo Tech Volunteer Group (Tokyo Tech VG), an official student club of the Institute, led a study tour to Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, two cities devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

The tour aimed to attract people who are interested in earthquake disaster prevention and recovery but have not yet visited the affected areas. The organizers hoped that participants would gain unique experiences and knowledge only available on site and increase their awareness of disaster prevention and mitigation.

First stop on study tour: Kesennuma Reconstruction Memorial Park

First stop on study tour: Kesennuma Reconstruction Memorial Park

A total of 18 participants — six Tokyo Tech VG members, two faculty members, and ten students from across Tokyo Tech’s Schools — joined the tour. These included three international students and several Japanese students who were overseas or in western Japan at the time of the 2011 earthquake, and therefore did not experience it. During the two-day tour, the participants visited several heavily affected sites and memorial museums in Kesennuma City and Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, and heard first-hand accounts from local raconteur guides.

Pre-tour session

Before departing, the participants held a pre-tour session at Tokyo Tech on February 28. Under the guidance of Professor Tatsuya Yumiyama, an Institute for Liberal Arts and Tokyo Tech VG faculty member, they discussed the purpose of the upcoming tour. They exchanged views on reasons for visiting disaster-stricken areas and ways to protect one’s own life and the lives of others when a natural disaster strikes.

March 9: Day 1 of study tour

The first stop for the tour participants was Kesennuma Reconstruction Memorial Park. The park, which overlooks Kesennuma Bay, is home to nameplates and traditional sculptures of the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Participants learned about the horrific episodes that inspired the sculptures and attempted to imagine the events of 13 years ago as they gazed out to sea.

Next, the group visited the Ruins of the Great East Japan Earthquake Kesennuma City Memorial Museum. The disaster ruins used to be the school building of Kesennuma Koyo High School, which the participants visited in two groups while listening to explanations by a raconteur. The stories helped them understand issues that would be difficult to comprehend simply by viewing exhibits, such as how teachers and students protected themselves in the face of the tsunami that was about to reach the fourth floor of the school building. The participants also watched a video that showed the remaining damage in the city and documented the thoughts and feelings of the people who suffered from the disaster.

Participants listening to story of raconteur at remains of Kesennuma Koyo High School

Participants listening to story of raconteur at remains of Kesennuma Koyo High School

March 10: Day 2 of study tour

On Day 2 of the tour, the participants visited the Ishinomaki City Okawa Elementary School Ruins. As they toured the school building and hill behind it, the participants were guided by raconteur Noriyuki Suzuki, a man who lost his own daughter at this location on March 11, 2011.

Many of the participants were deeply shocked as they listened to Suzuki’s experiences while standing at the actual site of the tragedy. They felt the need to take action, and to convey more strongly their desire to stop such immensely sad events from recurring. A number of the students had enhanced their understanding of the disaster’s aftermath by watching the documentary To live: People who fought a lawsuit over tsunami deaths, the screening of which was organized by Tokyo Tech VG on Ookayama Campus in November 2023. They continued to ask Suzuki various questions until the end of their visit.

Participants at Ishinomaki City Okawa Elementary School Ruins with raconteur Suzuki

Participants at Ishinomaki City Okawa Elementary School Ruins with raconteur Suzuki

Next, the tour group moved to the Ishinomaki City Kadonowaki Elementary School Ruins, where they toured the interior and exhibits of Kadonowaki Elementary School. This school was also damaged by the tsunami and resulting fire that broke out. Yoko Suzuki, the principal of the school during the disaster, gave a lecture about the situation at that time. She mentioned that the school’s daily efforts to educate children on disaster prevention turned out to be very successful. The evacuation efforts of Kadonowaki Elementary School at the time of the earthquake and tsunami saved the lives of not only the students and staff of the school, but also of other local residents.

The tour group’s next stop was the Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Memorial Park and its surrounding facilities. In the Miyagi Tsunami Memorial Museum and the 3.11 Memorial Hall Minamihama Tsunagukan, the participants read about the experiences of various people during the disaster. They also observed the horrors of a tsunami by watching a video at the Kadonowaki March 11 Education and Exhibition Theater (MEET).

To complete the emotional two-day tour, the participants held a reflection session in a rented conference room in Sendai City. People split into four groups to share their memories and feelings about what they had just witnessed and experienced. The aim was to express thoughts and exchange opinions while they were still vivid and fresh in everyone’s minds.

Tour participants reflecting, exchanging opinions, and sharing memories and feelings

Tour participants reflecting, exchanging opinions, and sharing memories and feelings

Post-tour session

A post-tour study session was held on campus on March 13. All participants chose one question from what they had seen or heard on the tour and shared it in small groups to create an interactive dialogue. A variety of questions emerged. Some were related to the background of what the participants witnessed on the tour. Others were related to the students’ field of expertise or their home country’s culture. In the future, Tokyo Tech VG plans to publish a compilation of all the participants’ questions as a study tour report.

Comments from tour participants

There were many things on the tour that could only be felt and observed on site, and many participants hoped that the tour would be held again next academic year. Many stated they would join again should the opportunity arise. Below are some other comments from the tour participants.

  • I am glad that the pre-tour session gave me time to review my objectives and learn how to utilize the interactive appreciation method*.
  • The raconteur guide told us what happened at the time of the disaster, and I was able to gain a better understanding than I could have by simply looking at the exhibits. It was heartbreaking to hear the stories of those who suffered from the disaster.
  • The reflection activity allowed me to hear different perspectives from everyone and reorganize my own thinking.
  • It was a valuable experience, and my expectations were exceeded fivefold. I am so glad I joined. I gained so much.

During the pre-tour study session, “interactive appreciation” was a key phrase used to emphasize active learning during tours and other events.

Formulating and sharing questions at post-tour session

Formulating and sharing questions at post-tour session

Comments from Tokyo Tech VG member

Saki Oogawara

1st-year master’s student, Civil and Environmental Engineering

I have visited disaster-stricken areas several times, and I planned this tour hoping that more students would experience the shock and change in thinking that I felt during my visits. Many students joined because they wanted to learn about the disaster. If any of the participants see this tour as a small turning point when they look back on it later, then that makes me happy. This was my first visit to Ishinomaki and my second visit to Kesennuma, where I discovered new insights.

What struck me the most during this tour was the reality that towns will truly disappear. I am studying landscape and community development, and the possibility of losing landscapes and even communities that were a given in the past made me wonder what I can do to help. On the other hand, disaster prevention, which attempts to stop this kind of loss, is also a specialized field of civil engineering. Hearing about it in the field made me reconsider my own aspirations and their connection to society.

Based on the lessons learned during this visit, Tokyo Tech VG would like to expand regional volunteer and outreach activities to form stronger ties between Tokyo Tech and local communities.

Tokyo Tech Volunteer Group

The Tokyo Tech Volunteer Group (Tokyo Tech VG), an official Tokyo Tech student group supported by the Student Support Center’s Student Success Support Division, was formed after student volunteers visited affected areas soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 to support the reconstruction process. Likeminded students soon joined the group, and in September of that year, momentum increased further with the Tokyo Tech Photo Rescue Project, an effort to clean water- and mold-damaged photos from the areas hit by the tsunami.

Today, Tokyo Tech VG plans and implements a variety of volunteer activities on and off campus, focusing on reconstruction support, disaster prevention, and regional cooperation. Specific activities include product exhibitions at the Tokyo Tech Festival and Homecoming Day to support reconstruction efforts in disaster-affected areas, assisting with on-campus disaster drills, implementing a Kids Cafeteria that offers nutritious food to both children and their parents, and mediating the donation and distribution of textbooks and other books through a used book fair.

Tokyo Tech VG meets once a week at lunchtime at Hisao & Hiroko Taki Plaza.

All affiliations in this article were accurate at the time of the event.


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