A Great Earthquake and 14 Students

By Dr. Yasushi Kigoshi

The greatest earthquake on record struck a peaceful town in Eastern Japan. The disaster, known as the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, changed the residents’ lives forever. About 800 people in the town lost their lives or were missing due to the tsunami that followed the quake on March 11, 2011.

The Yuriage area of Natori city, located next to Sendai city, Miyagi prefecture, was a town known for its thriving agriculture and fishing industries. It once had a population of more than 7,000. Since residences were concentrated in a fairly small area, it was a close-knit and peaceful community.

The time between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami left an hour for evacuation. However because of the spread of false or conflicting information, many residents failed to evacuate or fled in the wrong direction and were killed by the tsunami.

Fourteen students of Yuriage Junior High School also lost their lives in the disaster. Although they had time to evacuate, their deaths couldn’t be avoided.

Five years after the earthquake, the school building was demolished as part of reconstruction of the town. Before the demolition, a memorial monument inscribed with the names of the students who were killed in the disaster, and two classroom desks were set up in front of the school building. The monument and desks later were moved to the grounds of a museum dedicated to the disaster, called “Memory of Yuriage.”

The memorial monument, made of black stone, is shaped like a waist-high table. The flat top, which slightly slants towards the viewer, lists the names of 14 victims. Anyone can easily touch and feel the inscriptions of their names.


When I saw the inscriptions and the record of the disaster on the jet-black stone, I felt they were inscribed on my heart.

It read:

First-year Students

Arai Kazumi  Tanno Kōta

Hamada Rui  Henmi Juna

Second-year Students

Ōkawa Shun  Kikuchi Nanami

Sakurai Ayaka  Sasaki Kazumi

Takahashi  Masashi

Numata Ryōko

Higuchi Asuka

Third-year Students

Arakawa Takayoshi  Endō Issei

Numata Kaori

The names were followed by these words:

In memory of the students of Yuriage Junior High School who lost their lives in the tsunami caused by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 at 2:46 p.m.

At the “Memory of Yuriage” museum, a staff member tells visitors in a cordial manner, “Please touch their names tenderly and remember them. Please keep this memorial warm.”

Two classroom desks were placed next to the monument. On the desktop of one of them is the message:

May our dearest 14 friends rest in peace.

We may forget about the tsunami,

But we will never forget about you all.

We are always together. Forever.

This message is surrounded by handwritten names of the victims: “Isshō-kun, Takayoshi-kun, and Kaori-chan,” “Nanami-chan, Ayaka-chan, Ōkawa-kun, Masashi (or Shōji)-kun, Kazumi-chan, Ryōko-chan, and Asuka-chan,” “Kazumi-kun, Rui-chan, Juna-chan, and Kōta.” The two desks were placed there by Mrs. Tanno Yūko, the mother of one of the victims, Kōta. She wrote the message and names. Kōta was a first-year student. His name is the only one written without an honorific “kun” or “chan.” This makes it sound as if a mother is addressing her son.

Mrs. Tanno installed the desks in September 2011. At first she placed them as a stand for offering flowers in tribute to the victims. She shared with me the story of how she decided to use the desks and why she wrote the message.

“When I saw a heap of debris being cleared away from the town, I felt that our memories of many people’s lives in this town were also being wiped out. That made me so sad that I couldn’t help but set up a stand for flower offerings using a classroom desk. It was September of the year the earthquake occurred. I put a plastic bottle on the desk for flowers. As I visited this stand everyday. I gradually wanted people to remember what happened here. Then I wrote the names on the desk of the 14 students who lost their lives in the disaster.”

There was another desk next to it, which Mrs. Tanno also placed. On the desktop, a message is written with a bold marker:

“That day, so many people ran for shelter from the tsunami.

The reconstruction of the town is very important.

But please do not forget that the victims’ lives are still here.

Do our lives come to nothing after death?

I will continue to think of what we, the survivors, can do for them.”

These are the words of a mother who lost many friends, and above all, her beloved son. In the message, she says, “The reconstruction of the town is very important. But please do not forget the victims’ lives are still here.” She goes on to ask, “Do our lives come to nothing after death?”

Many people may believe “our lives come to nothing after death,” but is it really true? Once a child has died—even if just recently he or she was full of youth, laughing, crying, getting mad, getting tired and falling asleep—does his or her life come to nothing? If it’s true, what meaning is there in life? Or is life still meaningful? Such questions sprang from my heart when I read the messages on the desk.

Mrs. Tanno says, “Please do not forget the victims’ lives are still here.” She concludes with: “I will continue to think of what we, the survivors, can do for them.” What can we do for people who have lost their lives?

“Please do not forget the victims’ lives are still here.

Do our lives come to nothing after death?

I will continue to think what we the survivors can do for them.”

I may not be the only person who visits the memorial monument in Yuriage over and over again as if led by Mrs. Tanno’s words. It may be a strange question, but I wonder whose message it is and to whom it’s addressed. Of course, it’s obvious to any visitor that it’s a message from a mother who lost her child. However, I can’t help feeling this message is even deeper than just a mother’s words. Having visited this town many times, I feel this message is an embodiment of the 14 students’ unspoken voices.

Mrs. Tanno explained her feelings about setting up the classroom desks:

“When I set up the memorial, I think Yuriage had very few visitors. Probably I was the only frequent visitor. That’s because the town was completely ruined and there was nothing to visit. Even my friends asked me, “Why are you going there?” It’s true everything was destroyed in Yuriage. For me, it was the only place I could meet my son. I thought I might find memories of my son there. That’s why I came here almost every day without any particular purpose. It was natural for me to visit. There was no special meaning in my going. Before long, I began to ponder what I could do to remind people the lives of 14 children were still there. Then, I began writing messages on the desks.”

The town was destroyed; a town where children lost their lives in a disaster; a town with nowhere to go. But Mrs. Tanno kept visiting. For her, it was a most precious place, a place where she could meet her son and a place where she could find memories of him. For most people, there seemed to be no reason to visit. Some visitors might only think about raising the level of the entire town as part of a reconstruction project. But for her, it was the only place where memories of her son and his friends could be awakened. She had written: “The reconstruction of the town is very important. But please do not forget the victims’ lives are still here.” Her message and the names of the 14 children were written with quiet dignity.

In an unexpected turn of events, her message spread among a large number of people later.  She said: “One day, I found another plastic bottle placed on the desk. It encouraged me greatly because there was someone with whom I could share my thoughts. Then I strongly wanted to create a ‘goal’ for the children’s lives, which was evidence they were still living there.”

Mrs. Tanno’s idea of creating a “goal for their lives” or “evidence of their lives” was later embodied as the memorial monument. Why does she call the memorial a “goal?”

On March 11, 2011, the day the earthquake struck, a graduation ceremony was held at Yuriage Junior High School. That morning after the ceremony, graduates and students left school and walked to a community hall, located about 200 meters away (about 220 yards) to attend a graduation party. At the hall, there also was a party for a local preschool, attended by about 100 residents. The earthquake struck during the party. There were a series of aftershocks. Students and residents evacuated the hall and waited outside when they received a warning of an imminent tsunami. The community hall was a two-storied, reinforced concrete building designated as an official shelter.

However, the residents received an evacuation order to take shelter in Yuriage Junior High School. They were told the school was safer because it was a three-story buiding. Many students and children ran desperately toward the school. At that moment, the massive tsunami hit the area. People who stayed in the community hall survived, but many of those people running toward the school were killed. Victims included students who left the school after the graduation ceremony and but were ordered to take shelter back at the school. They ran desperately but couldn’t escape into the building. That’s why Mrs. Tanno wanted to create a “goal” for them as the evidence of their lives.

In November 2011, an association of bereaved families of disaster victims was established. At a meeting, Mrs. Tanno proposed immediately setting up a memorial monument for victims. The proposal was accepted. They decided to set up the monument on March 11, 2012, the first anniversary of the disaster. On that day, their “goal” was established. The students, who couldn’t make it to the building, finally reached their goal together. The goal is the evidence of their lives.

Mrs. Tanno told me:

“The time between the quake and tsunami was more than an hour. There was ample time to escape and all the residents could have survived. But we were too optimistic about the possibility of a tsunami. Consequently, many residents fell victim to the disaster. I should have taught our children that a tsunami always follows an earthquake. I should have learned more about disaster prevention. I was always nagging my son about studying hard or doing homework. The most important thing I should have taught him was that it’s bad to die before one’s parents. I now realize doing well in school is not so important. I just wish he still were living. I was such a stupid mother that I thought doing homework was most important. I don’t want other parents to make the same mistake. Now I want everyone to understand the best thing you can do for your parents is to live. As long as you are living, you can fulfill any wish.”

14 Tulips

The “goal” for the children now is established as evidence of their lives. It’s not simply a memorial of their lives in the past. For Mrs. Tanno, it’s evidence their lives are still here. Together with their friends, they have reached the goal. Mrs. Tanno is certain of their presence. She explained why.

At the “Memory of Yuriage” museum, a photo of 14 tulips was displayed. It was discreetly placed on the museum floor, together with other mementos found in the school building. At first, Mrs. Tanno didn’t mention the 14 tulips. Although I knew a little about them, I asked about their meaning. She answered with a smile.

“There was a weed-covered dirt area behind the memorial monument. I planted seasonal flowers in the area. The soil became barren because of seawater and rubble. One of my supporters in Tochigi gave me a bagful of tulip bulbs in a plastic bag. I planted all of them in the area last September. Randomly I planted them. Since this area doesn’t belong to anyone, some people occasionally pull weeds or level the ground. Sometimes they accidentally dug up the bulbs without knowing I planted them. Anyway, winter passed. In spring, buds began to sprout. When they were in full bloom, I took pictures of them and emailed the photos to the person who gave me the bulbs. That person sent a message back saying, ‘Hey, look closely at the flowers.’ I looked intently at the flowers. Suddenly I noticed there were 14 flowers! From a bagful of bulbs planted, 14 tulips blossomed! It was the exact number of children who passed away. This cannot be mere coincidence. Although I planted many more, just 14 blossomed. It made me so happy.”

Mrs. Tanno repeatedly told me it was no miracle. She shared with me a story about the 14 tulips. For her, it was no coincidence, but she was careful not to sound mystical or superstitious.

“I don’t think it was a miracle, but I believe the children were trying to tell me through the flowers they were still there. The 14 tulips convinced me of their presence.”

The 14 tulips dramatically changed her thinking. As previously mentioned, she had many regrets about what she should have done for her son, such as telling children that an earthquake is always followed by a tsunami or that it’s bad to die before their parents, instead nagging about studying hard and doing homework. She had many messages she couldn’t convey to them. Now she received a message from the children through the 14 tulips. The children were assuring her they were still there although they didn’t have physical form. Mrs. Tanno was convinced they were still alive.

In a message on the desk, she wrote: “But please do not forget the victims’ lives are still here.” I don’t think she was asking us to remember lives lost in the disaster. She was asking us to remember they were still living here. She was not talking about something miraculous. She undoubtedly received a message from the children their lives were still there. This was an answer to her question, “Do our lives come to nothing after death?”

She said: “There is a sequel to this story. Later, the flowers on the tulips were blown away by wind. Later, I found a little flower beneath the tulips. Actually there was a female student killed in the disaster at Yuriage Elementary School. She was the only girl among the school’s victims. The small flower was that girl. I am convinced it was no coincidence. Her life appeared as the flower.”

She concluded her message as follows:

“Every year on March 11, we hold an event called ‘Message Pigeons,’ when we release

pigeon-shaped balloons with messages attached to their legs. This year, we had severe and snowy weather before the event, but the sky cleared on event day. In another year, we held the event in strong wind, but when we released the balloons, the wind suddenly died down and a gentle breeze blew towards the ocean. Somehow, we always had perfect weather whenever we released the ballons as if we were protected by something. I thought the children were watching over us and making things go smoothly. When I think about it, I want people to understand our lives do mean something even after we die. While I’m working on projects here with people, I often somehow feel protected.”

Although she regretted not being able to protect the children, she now feels protected by them. Although she found herself powerless to save the children, she feels saved by them now. They have no physical form but she fully realizes their presence. She feels that protection in every aspect of her daily life.


 The phrase, “Human life comes to nothing after death,” perhaps reflect thinking of modern, rational minds. In modern times, religious thoughts about afterlife are redefined through the lens of “demystification” (or “demythologization”). Likewise, Shinran’s Pure Land thought has been reinterpreted in an excessively rational way.

Fundamentally, Buddhist thought is explained by core concepts such as impermanence, emptiness and absence of self. Consequently, it inherently conflicts with the notion of permanent existence, a soul, and an afterlife, regarding those ideas as products of illusion, which are related to the Buddhist viewpoint of dependent origination and impermanence.

Shinran regarded as provisional seeking birth in the Pure Land in an afterlife. Those terms instead are viewed as the Buddha’s expedient means guiding us to true Pure Land teachings. From this standpoint, the idea of afterlife or a soul’s permanent existence are understood as epitomizing worldly desires.

While thinking of an afterlife may provide temporary relief from anxiety and suffering, it does not reflect a true understanding of Pure Land. However, human beings are merely human beings and not Buddhas. Throughout his life, Shinran Shonin deeply respected as fellow followers “ordinary people in rural areas,” who couldn’t help praying for people who passed away and praying even for their own afterlife. Although we may understand the difficulty of helping others with our limited ability to “pity, sympathize, and care,” we cannot stop trying. That’s the reality of being human. Deep within us, we want to stay connected spiritually with loved ones who have died, even if it’s illusion or worldly desire. We wish to be together with departed loved ones even with our doubts and feelings that such thoughts are illusory and reflect worldly desire.

Nishida Kitarō, the great Japanese philosopher, was a father who lost his son. In a letter, he wrote:

“Whenever I remember my dead son’s face, I find myself lost, missing him and mourning his death. I only wish he were still alive. Death comes to us regardless of age. It is natural in life. Because he isn’t the only person who died young, there’s no reason a logical mind should mourn his death. However, even if it’s the world’s way, sorrow and craving are part of human nature. We often are encouraged to forget about the dead as soon as possible because there’s no use grieving a loss forever.

“For a parent, there’s nothing sadder than losing a child. There’s a saying, ‘time heals all wounds.’ It makes sense but lacks compassion and isn’t something to say to the bereaved. A parent never wants memories of a child who has died to fade away. Parents would do anything to keep those memories alive, treasuring them throughout their life. The least I could do to comfort him, if only occasionally, is to recall his memory and think about him. Remembering a dead child is truly painful, but a parent would never want to remove this pain.” (Preface, “Kokubungakushi kōwa,” Nishida Kitarō Zenshū, vol. 1, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1987, 417.)

These are the words of Nishida Kitarō, who was both a Zen Buddhist and profoundly knowledgeable about Shinran’s teaching. He said, “A human being has the capacity to understand everything with reason.” We can understand everything with our intellect. It is even possible to intellectually understand the concept of impermanence without much difficulty. However, to intellectually understand impermanence and to accept impermanence as part of life are totally different. Even if we understand something, we cannot live based only on understanding. Human feelings and logical reasoning aren’t always connected.

As Nishida pointed out, we can intellectually understand that death comes to us regardless of age. Even so, we feel sadness when we experience sorrowful events. Parents “would never want memories of his or her dead child to fade away, would do anything to keep the child’s memory alive, and would treasure those memories throughout their life.” Memories come with pain. But a parent would never want to remove this pain, he said.

Nishida continues:

“Parental love can be truly ignorant. From an objective viewpoint, it may seem like plain ignorance. However, since I lost my son, I learned humanity lies deep within ignorance.… None of our human achievements has any purpose other than to serve humanity. The ultimate purpose of education or business is to serve humanity. Among various types of service to humanity, nothing is more profound and more painful than parental love for children. Those people who pretend to be sophisticated but lacking in humanitarian feelings only display their narrow-mindedness.”

Nishida points out the ignorance of parental love. In this kind of love, parents reject the fundamental truths that death comes to young and old alike, or that time heals all wounds. Bereaved parents refuse to forget and don’t want to let go of sorrow. Nishida calls this attitude ignorance. But in the midst of ignorance are human feelings. This is the beauty of human nature. In ignorance is the world of true humanity, where the living and deceased live together in harmony.

Amid parental love lies poignant pain. Mrs. Tanno finally received a message from the children. She encountered the children in finding meaning in the 14 tulips. When she was convinced she received a message in the tulips, her unfulfilled wish to save and protect them was transformed into accepting herself as a person who was saved and protected by them. The mother, who sacrificed for her child, found herself embraced by compassion from her child, who became a Buddha to her. Thereafter, she lived with a deep sense of appreciation.

She told me: “We should have protected the children. But we are protected by them even though we couldn’t protect them from disaster. We all have close ties with each other, strengthened by the children. Other bereaved families share this same feeling. Therefore, we still are living together with the earthquake. The disaster is not a thing of the past.”

As Japan struggles to reconstruct the affected areas, the dead are being swept away from our memories. For bereaved families, however, the dead are not simply people who died in past. They still are living, watching over us, and protecting families. They are living as the Buddha’s compassion, embracing our lives here and now.

As a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist, how can I answer the question, “Do our lives come to nothing after death?” Perhaps I should answer, “Yes because nothing is permanent and the basic principle of Buddhism is impermanence.” Perhaps I should explain Shinran’s teaching by saying, “Viewing Pure Land as afterlife is the Buddha’s expedient means to guide us to the true teachings. True Pure Land is a spiritual world to which we are awakened in our lifetime, not an afterlife where we go after death” But these explanations are denials of Mrs. Tanno’s feelings. As Nishida points out, they come from the viewpoint of “those who pretend to be sophisticated but are lacking in humanitarian feelings” and “display only their narrow-mindedness.”

Shakyamuni’s teachings weren’t just lofty thoughts given only to brilliant disciples. Shinran didn’t seclude himself in an ivory tower on Mount Hiei to become a Buddhist scholar. Shakyamuni gave the teachings to a mother who grieved the loss of a child. Shinran continued to rediscover himself as an unenlightened, ordinary being and part of a community of “us,” ordinary people in rural areas, who worried about their birth in the Pure Land. When a disciple of Shakyamuni grieved the death of a senior disciple who committed suicide, Shakyamuni quietly said to him, “He became an arhat.”

Shinran wrote in a letter to a follower who worried about birth in the Pure Land after death: “My life has now reached the fullness of its years. It is certain that I will go to birth in the Pure Land before you, so without fail, I will await you there.” (“Lamps for the Latter Ages,” The Collected Works of Shinran, vol. 1, Kyoto: The Jōdo Shinshū Seiten English Translation and Editorial Committee, 1997, 539.)

Shakyamuni and Shinran lived together with ordinary people, shared human sufferings with them, and bent their ears to them. As Nishida said, they were the ones who lived in the light of human feelings, discovering truth within humanity.

Buddhism’s essence doesn’t exist in an ideal world outside human feelings or in Buddhist texts. It works in the midst of our sufferings and grief, shedding truth’s light on our hearts. We must pay close attention to people with whom Shinran lived and shared suffering. They were the “painfully and hopelessly ignorant” (The Collected Works of Shinran, 469), whom Shinran calls “us,” himself included.

Such people found themselves mired in struggles, no matter how hard they tried to find truth. These were the people with whom Shinran shared his life. The teachings he gave them were the True Essence (Shinshū) of the Pure Land (Jōdo). In a wasan (hymn), he wrote:

Although I take refuge in the true Pure Land way,

It is hard to have a true and sincere mind.

This self of mine is false and insincere;

I completely lack any kind of pure mind.

(“Gutoku’s Hymns of Lament and Reflection,” The Collected Works of Shinran, 421.)

As he deepened his understanding of the teachings, Shinran discovered he was a person lacking appreciation for truth. As his understanding deepened, he found himself stuck in the mud of human feelings, which he described as “completely lacking a pure mind.”

Dogmatism is not the Shin Buddhist way of life. We should remember Shinran shared his life with people in the midst of human feelings and never stayed on the sidelines. I think that’s the way we Shinshū followers should live.

I’m sometimes at a loss about how to live as a Shinshū follower. But through my experiences in the disaster-affected areas, I discovered a way of living as a Shinshū follower by being side-by-side with people as “us,” ordinary and unenlightened beings like myself.

Dr. Yasushi Kigoshi is president of Otani University in Kyoto, Japan.


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