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Nonfiction

As the deadly tsunami sped toward
Japan’s coast, a group of kids raced to
save themselves–and hundreds of others
By LAUREN TARSHIS
With reporting from
Japan by Setsuko Kamiya
of the Japan Times

SURVIVING THE

NAR
NONFRI ATIVE
CTION
Reads
l
but it’ike fiction—
s all tr
ue

TSUNA
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Scholastic Scope • JANUARY 30, 2012

DESCRIPTIVE WRITING
As you read, think about the words and phrases the author uses to
help you imagine the disaster in Japan.

O

n the afternoon of March 11,
2011, the students of Kamaishi
East Junior High School, in
Kamaishi, Japan, were getting
ready for after-school activities. Fourteenyear-old Aki Kawasaki was excited for
her basketball practice. Her classmate
Kana Sasaki was getting dressed for judo.
Fumiya Akasaka, captain of the boys’
tennis team, was heading for the courts.
Their English teacher, Shin Saito, was
grading papers in his office.
It was a typical Friday afternoon, until
2:46, when a massive earthquake began
to rumble 20 miles below the floor of the
Pacific Ocean.
The quake, 40 miles off Japan’s coast, was
1,000 times more powerful than the 2010
earthquake in Haiti. It sent shockwaves
hundreds of miles in every direction. In
Tokyo, office buildings swayed like blades
of grass. Glass from shattered windows
rained down onto the streets. In Kamaishi,
a town on Japan’s beautiful northeastern
coast, buildings shook violently.
Streets cracked open. Pieces of the
See our
incredible
stone cliffs surrounding the
tsunami video
at Scope Online.
city crumbled into the sea.

scholastic.com/scope • JANUARY 30, 2012

Mainichi Shimbun/Reuters/Landov

AMI

as you read, THINK ABOUT:

5

Kamaishi East rushed for cover as

down through the generations.
Four years ago, school leaders

computers, books, and furniture

in Kamaishi decided they needed

crashed around them. People

to do more than simply tell their

screamed, their cries drowned out

children these stories. They wanted

by the quake’s monstrous roar.

Kamaishi’s students to be experts.

Most earthquakes last for a few

Scientists predicted that another

seconds, unleashing quick bursts

deadly quake and tsunami could

of destruction. This quake was

strike Japan’s coast at any time.

different. It went on and on, like an

The more students knew, school

endless nightmare. It continued for

leaders believed, the more likely

nearly six minutes—the shaking,

they would be to survive.

the roaring, the crashing, the

At Kamaishi East and other

terror. When it finally stopped,

middle schools, tsunami education

there was a moment of eerie quiet.

became part of every class. In

Kamaishi East, built to survive

social studies, students researched

such quakes, was still standing.

the 1896 tsunami and its effects

Miraculously, none of the students

on the city. In science, they learned

and teachers was seriously injured.

how tsunamis form. In language

But there was no feeling of relief

arts, they wrote essays about

for Aki, Kana, Fumiya, or any of

the 1933 tsunami. They drew

the students at Kamaishi East.

hazard maps showing the likely

They knew the disaster was just

paths of waves and even learned

beginning.

how to cook soup for people in

Destroyed Twice
The quake had triggered a series
of massive waves called a tsunami.
This tsunami was hundreds of

disaster shelters.

ASIA
CHINA

RUSSIA

PACIFIC
OCEAN

miles wide, and it was now racing
across the ocean at jet speeds. Just
a few yards high at first, it would
grow stronger and bigger—in some

NORTH
KOREA

places as high as 133 feet—as it
approached the shore. It would hit
Japan’s northeastern coast with

SOUTH
KOREA

Kamaishi

Sea of Japan
(East Sea)

Areas hit hard by
the tsunami in 2011

JAPAN

Site of earthquake

Tokyo

such incredible force that anything
in its way would be obliterated.

JAPAN

It wasn’t the first time a tsunami
struck Kamaishi. The town had

PACIFIC
OCEAN

been destroyed before, once in
1896 and again in 1933. Stories of
these disasters had been passed

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Scholastic Scope • JANUARY 30, 2012

U.S.

0

80 Miles

top: Yomiuri/Reuters/Landov; bottom: Hiroto Sekiguchi/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images;
map: Jim McMahon/”Mapman”

The students and teachers of

They also participated in

rushing away changed their

tsunami drills. Students had

minds. Soon hundreds of students

been taught to gather outside

and teachers were in a frantic

the school and wait for teachers

dash for safety.

to take attendance. Once everyone

“I thought the tsunami would

was accounted for, the group

come,” says Aki. “I was desperately

would evacuate to a parking lot

trying to escape.”

half a mile away.
But when the quake struck,

When they reached the first
evacuation site, they decided to

students realized they had no time

run for higher ground. The older

to stand around. They knew this

students helped the younger ones,

quake was far more powerful than

pushing them along, grabbing

any before. They didn’t doubt that

their hands. They went to a second

a tsunami was heading straight for

evacuation site, a parking lot on

them. It was a life-or-death race,

a hill. Terrified and out of breath,

with not a minute to spare.

they had a sweeping view of the

“Before I realized I was running,
my feet were moving,” Kana says.
With panicked shouts, students
urged their teachers to follow them
as they sprinted for higher ground.

horrific scene unfolding in their
town just below.

A Black Raging River
The ocean had already begun

At the neighboring elementary

its attack. Just 30 minutes after

school, teachers had planned to

the earthquake, a churning

stay on their building’s third floor.

black wave swept into the streets,

The sight of the older students

rising so quickly that cars, trucks,
homes, and people were swallowed
up in seconds.
The water—now a raging river
littered with debris, boats, and
wrecked homes—rushed deeper
into the city and up into the hills.
The students watched in shock
as their school was engulfed.
At the elementary school, a car

ABOVE: Cars float
like bath toys in
the flooded streets.
RIGHT: A man holds
his baby girl. Rescue
workers found her in
the rubble three days
after the devastating
earthquake and
tsunami.

crashed into the third floor, exactly
where the teachers had planned
to wait with the children after the
quake. If they had stayed, they
would have been killed.
Similar scenes were unfolding
up and down Japan’s coast. In
minutes, hundreds of
places—small cities,

scholastic.com/scope • JANUARY 30, 2012

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bustling towns, quaint fishing
villages, and quiet farming
communities—were completely
submerged. And then, like a
monster returning to its lair,
the water rushed back into the
Pacific. Thousands of people
were swept out to sea.
In the hours after the quake
and tsunami, Aki, Kana, and
Fumiya stood amid a group of

Standing tall: Kamaishi
East Junior High students
(from left) Kana Sasaki,
Fumiya Akasaka, and Aki
Kawasaki

hundreds of stunned students
and teachers, shivering in the
cold, terrified for their families.
They eventually made their way
to one of the city’s surviving
school buildings, where there

communities but toxic mud littered

the ruin, the story of the students

was no food, water, or lights.

with the shreds of people’s lives—

of Kamaishi East continues to

twisted bits of metal and wood,

inspire the people of this city.

the next day. Only then were

tattered clothes, ruined books and

All of the students and teachers

they reunited with their families.

photo albums.

survived. The teachers insist that it

Kamaishi was devastated. Out of

Fourteen students lost one or both

was Kamaishi East students’ quick

parents. Aki, Kana, and Fumiya

a population of 37,000 people, 850

action in a moment of terror that

were among the lucky. Their

were killed. Thousands lost their

made the difference. “If it weren’t

families were safe.

homes, including Kana and Fumiya

for them,” says Saito, “I don’t think

and most of the other students at

I would be alive.”

Hope and Strength
It is nearly impossible to grasp

Kamaishi East. A year later, only a

Mr. Saito speaks proudly of

few shops have reopened. Several

Aki, Kana, Fumiya, and the other

the full picture of destruction

thousand tons of debris have been

students, who are working to

unleashed by this disaster.

cleaned from the streets. But the

rebuild their lives. “Things are

Approximately 20,000 people

reconstruction of Kamaishi East

very tough, and the students face

died. Entire towns were simply

has not yet begun. The students

many difficulties moving forward,”

erased by the raging waters. These

are sharing a school building with

Saito says. “But the fact is, it’s the

were lively towns, centuries old.

another junior high in the city.

students who are giving us hope

Today, nothing remains of these

But amid the hopelessness and

Write to the students of Kamaishi east!

Scope Japan Letters

8

Scholastic Scope • JANUARY 30, 2012

and strength to move on.”

Setsuko Kamiya/The Japan Times

They went to another school

EXCERPT

Tsunami
In Fiction
In a classic novel
from 1948, the
famous author Pearl
S. Buck writes of an
ancient Japanese
village destroyed by
a tsunami as a man,
his son, Kino, and
Kino’s friend, Jiya,
watch in horror.

Art Resource, New York

The Big Wave

by Pearl S. Buck
. . . In a few seconds, before their eyes the wave had grown and come
nearer and nearer, higher and higher. The air was filled with its roar
and shout. It rushed over the flat still waters of the ocean and before
Jiya could scream again it reached the village and covered it fathoms
deep in swirling wild water, green laced with fierce white foam. The
wave ran up the mountainside . . . all who were still climbing the
path were swept away—black, tossing scraps in the wicked waters.
The wave ran up the mountain until Kino and Jiya saw the wavelets
curl at the terrace walls upon which they stood. Then with a great
sucking sigh, the wave swept back again, ebbing into the ocean,
dragging everything with it, trees and stones and houses. They stood,
the man and the two boys, utterly silent, clinging together, facing the
wave as it went away.
contest
It swept back over the
Descriptive language helps us imagine
village and returned
how something looks, feels, sounds,
slowly again to the ocean,
smells, and tastes. How do Lauren Tarshis
subsiding, sinking into a
and Pearl S. Buck use descriptive language
great stillness.
to tell their tsunami stories? Send your answer to
From The Big Wave, by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright
1948, by Pearl S. Buck. Reprinted by permission
of the estate of Pearl S. Buck.

Get this
activity
Online

WAVE CONTEST. Include textual details. Five winners
will get The Big Wave. See page 2 for details.

scholastic.com/scope • JANUARY 30, 2012

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