Small-town school graduation lifts spirits

Small-town school graduation lifts spirits

Graduates from Okirai Junior High School pose for a photograph after their graduation ceremony at Okirai Kindergarten in Okirai district, Ofunato, on Wednesday. Reuters

The small school, in a town many in Japan had never heard until about two weeks ago, offered a balm for battered spirits by holding a modest ceremony for 10 boys and 19 girls now heading into senior school.

Okirai, nestled in the mountains along the coast of northeastern Iwate prefecture, had its centre ripped out by the massive tsunami that followed the March 11 earthquake.

Most of the town’s few thousand residents escaped to higher ground, but deaths were high among a group of firemen trying to slam shut sluice gates on a seawall that was far too short to hold back the wave that was more than 10 metres high.

One of the firemen killed was the father of Keisuke Iwaki —junior high school graduate and the spokesman at graduation for the class of 2011.

All the students at the school, which was built on higher ground, escaped the disaster unharmed. “My heart was overflowing,” said his mother Hiroko Iwaki. “My lost husband would have been so proud of him.”

Keisuke, dressed in his school uniform, delivered his address in a firm voice, thanking his teachers and lauding his classmates.

School principal Toshiyuki Chiba said he had made a deal with Keisuke not to cry at the ceremony.

But tears were shed at the ceremony hall, with a few parents wiping their eyes when Keisuke made his way to the podium.

They cried again when the graduates sang the school song and when one of the speakers became choked up during his address.

Once the formalities ended, the students, most of them aged 15, braved the snow for a group picture on a field overlooking the plain of destruction brought by the tsunami.

The mood lightened. Teenagers became teenagers and dropped off their diplomas with the mothers so they could pose for pictures and talk about high school.