REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– The deaths of 74 elementary school students and 10 teachers in a small Japanese coastal town were among the nation's most poignant losses in last year's March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Since then, parents of the dead children at the Okawa primary school have found little closure; many have demanded to know why school officials did not do more to protect students, especially in a nation where strict school disaster drills are commonplace.
On Sunday, after more than 10 months of silence, board of education officials publicly took responsibility for the deaths, which came after the earthquake struck on that March afternoon, and was followed by a powerful tsunami less than half an hour later.
At a meeting attended by more than 80 parents, the officials acknowledged problems with the school's evacuation measures and apologized over the lack of guidance given to their children during the chaotic moments as the disaster unfolded.
For months, school principal Kashiba Teruyuki has refused to speak publicly about the deaths. But at the meeting, in which board members presented results of a study into actions by teachers and other officials, Teruyuki took the blame for the deaths that had emotionally divided the provincial city, located about 220 miles north of Tokyo.
"I should be blamed because I was inadequate as principal," Teruyuki said at the emotional meeting in the tiny farming and fishing community. "I should have prepared an adequate disaster manual and raised awareness among teachers about the level of danger."
Teruyuki, who was away from the school when the disaster struck, added that "I know I am beyond forgiveness no matter how much I apologize. But I'm determined to continue apologizing."
Thirty-four students who survived the disaster continue to attend classes at another site. The parents of the dead and missing, meanwhile, continue to search for the bodies of their children, gathering each day at the school grounds not far from the sea.
For them, the school's answers were not enough.
"I appreciate that the board admitted responsibility for events on the day, but no one has been held accountable," Yoshiaki Suzuki, a slight, grim-faced building industry worker, said after the meeting.
Suzuki and his wife, Miho, lost two children in the disaster. Their son Kento, a six-grader, drowned in the disaster. The body of his younger sister, Hana, a fourth-grader, was never found.
Board members found that there was no specific evacuation site written in the school's disaster manual, teachers had insufficient awareness of the danger, and staff assumed, based on their past experience, that the tsunami would not reach the school, according to a story in Tokyo's Daily Yomiuri newspaper.
Officials said they would take steps to improve safety measures.
"We received information about the tsunami but we failed to take proper evacuation measures," said Naohiko Sakai, head of the municipal education board. "There were flaws in our guidance and supervision."
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Weeks after the earthquake and tsunami hit the coastline of Japan, parents continue to search for their missing daughter in the muddy fields that were once the Okawa primary school yard. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times