Sakata, who was attending an academic conference in Sapporo (on Hokkaido) at the time of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, said an independent broadcast system ordered campus employees, students, and community members to evacuate to the first floor school cafeteria.
In Ishinomaki, Sakata said nearly 40 percent of the city’s 60,000-household population sustained a heavy amount of damage to their homes – most of which was concentrated on the first floor. Of the nearly 162,000 people who lived inIshinomaki prior to the earthquake, 4,000 people either lost their lives or are still missing – a rate that accounts for nearly 2.5 percent of the city’s entire population. However, in other towns, the death rate was much higher. In the nearby town of Onagawa, which is located to the north of Ishinomaki, nearly 10 percent of the town’s entire population was killed during the disaster.
In all, Sakata said six out of the 1,800 students that attend the university died during the disaster – many while attempting to save aged or disabled family members. Sakata said he was „very proud of these students,“ and noted their relatively high survival rate when compared to the numbers of victims in the town.
„The reason why many students survived is a matter to study seriously, because many students‘ homes were located in areas that were very heavily damaged,“ Sakata said.
Initially, Sakata said the school harbored and shared its resources – including nearly three years worth of donated emergency food and 120 tons of stored water – with community members and students who were unable to return to their homes.
„This is a very specific university, because we are at the front line of the disaster,“ Sakata said. „We are the victims as well, so we can recognize the real needs very easily, but to put it quite simply, we had no other choice – it is very likely that other universities would have done the same thing in the our situation.“
Despite the frigid temperatures and winter weather conditions, the Red Cross also set up a temporary medical area in the university’s parking lot to respond to the medical needs of victims and coordinate transportation needs to area hospitals. In all, Sakata said the Red Cross treated nearly 100 patients each day for several weeks.
In all, Sakata said nearly 630 of the university’s 1,800 total students are facing „very grave financial difficulties“ after the tsunami directly severed their family’s household income, especially those students whose family members were employed in the fishing or agricultural industry. To help these families, Sakata explained that the university is using its private institution status to issue partial or complete tuition waivers for these students over the next two years – an action that Sakata noted is necessary, since tuition fees in Japan are equivalent to that of universities in the United States.
„I think it is very important to let these suffered students graduate, because I thought that many of them change into very serious, very hard-working students,“ Sakata said. „They grew, they developed by a very, very large cost – sometimes at the lives of their parents – so they know what the disaster means and know how victims feel after the disaster. I want them to become leaders in many different areas, such as companies or local governments, because they know how difficult situations such as this really are.“
Despite the assistance that the university has been able to provide for its students and the community, the disaster has also had a significantly negative impact on its enrollment. One particular reason, Sakata said, is because the direct Japan Railways line between Ishinomaki and Sendai was severed during the tsunami and may take more than three years to complete after its original route along the coastline was deemed to be unsafe. Many students who live outside of the town must now take an inconvenient route that requires them to make several train transfers before reaching the town,Sakata explained.
Hope Amid the Disaster
Apart from the negative impacts that the disaster has had on the community, there is still residual hope in some of the accomplishments made since the disaster first struck. Although graduation ceremonies are a very important event in Japan, a traditional ceremony had to be abandoned, since the university’s gymnasium was being used for an evacuation site. However, because nearly 15 out of the 250 university students taking refuge at the school were eligible for graduation, Sakata was determined to hold the ceremony in spite of the challenges brought by the disaster.
„The office staff covered some desks with a white cloth, and fortunately my suit was on the second floor of my house,“Sakata said jokingly. „The home of the dean of the science faculty was completely damaged – he had nine cars inside ofhis home with three bodies inside of the car. But, fortunately,his suit was also on the second floor of his home, so we hurried to our homes to pick up our clothes. At the time, I used my mountain bike, so I put the suit inside of my backpack and carried it back for the ceremony.“ Despite the formalities that are typically exercised at traditional commencements, Sakatasaid he enjoyed the intimacy of the small gradation ceremony that involved presenting each student with his or her diploma.
„After the ceremony, we shook hands and many of the students told me, ‚Take care of your health.‘ It was very impressive,“ Sakata said.