Small-town school graduation lifts spirits in battered Japan

OKIRAI, Japan Wed Mar 23, 2011 8:18am EDT

1 of 3. Graduates from Okirai Junior High School hold their diplomas as they pose for a ceremonial photograph after their graduation ceremony at Okirai Kindergarten at Okirai district in Ofunato March 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

OKIRAI, Japan (Reuters) - Classes stopped when Okirai Junior High School was hit by the tsunami, students were kept away once it was used as a temporary morgue, but on Wednesday they returned for a graduation.

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 center 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 meters 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.

"All of the students at the school escaped the tsunami," Chiba said. "There was a panic and one girl just froze but I yelled at her to get moving because her life depended on it."

"This is a time when we should be looking forward," Chiba said after making a speech where he encouraged the students to use the tragedy to lead better lives.

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.

The Okirai Junior High School Class of 2011 talked and horsed around for about another hour before slowly making their way out of the school yard that was flooded by the tsunami.

Parents shuttled their children home and other students went to the houses of relatives and friends who took them in after the waves washed away their own houses.

Shortly after the students left, another ceremony was held at the school, this time by a Buddhist priest for a victim of the tsunami and whose body, like a few others, still remain in a school hall being used as a temporary morgue.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)