ISHINOMAKI, Japan — In 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake cracked open the Hoikuen Aihara day care and nursery school. The ensuing tsunami, which rose as high as 65 feet in this small coastal city, battered it further.
The government wrote it off as another casualty in a city full of tragedy — 3,162 dead, 430 missing, 50,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.
Three years later, at the end of a one-lane road in a neighborhood of squat, vinyl-sided warehouses and empty dirt lots, Hoikuen Aihara endures.
The renovated building is compact, but the tidy, wooden-fenced playground is spacious, and today it is dotted with plastic Easter eggs donated by U.S. military families. Inside, two 6-year-old girls are giving a graduation recital for their parents and teachers.
Although Hoikuen Aihara’s future remains in question, its continued existence is testament to a broad coalition of local volunteers touched by its plight, as well as the emotional and material support of foreigners who had never even heard of Ishinomaki before they helped.
“I was going to give up and close the center,” Kayomi Aihara, the center’s director, told Stars and Stripes during a recent visit.
Aihara’s home was destroyed by the disaster. Her grandfather became gravely ill.
As she reassembled her personal affairs as best she could, the parents of some of the 60 children the center once looked after began calling. The parents needed to get back to work right away.
And so one month after the disaster, in a city that remained largely covered in mud and rubble, the day care reopened inside an apartment.
The day care center building’s renovation finished in July 2011. Concerns that another tsunami could strike kept Aihara hesitant to move back, but her options were limited and the apartment grew stifling.
After talking with parents, she moved back in summer 2012. In doing so, Aihara made a financially crippling decision: she would not take more students than her teachers could easily evacuate. That meant no more than 20 students.
One day, Aihara received a call on her cell phone from an unfamiliar number. The caller said she lived on a U.S. Navy base in San Diego and wanted to help.
Aihara thought it was a prank. Why, she wondered, would the U.S. military care about saving my day care center?
Masako Sullivan, the Navy spouse who called, helped start Helping Hands for Tohoku, an unofficial volunteer group of military families that now counts hundreds of members stationed in Japan, the United States and elsewhere.
The group had adopted a temporary housing community in another disaster-stricken area and wanted to branch out. Soon after, basic supplies arrived at the day care, along with letters and pictures from Americans.
Aihara marveled at how Sullivan anticipated exactly what the day care center needed. It made the difference between just getting by and giving the children something more.
“We are able to save the money that we would have otherwise been spending to buy supplies and use it for special events,” she said.
The next hammer blow came in December 2012. Ishinomaki declared the day care center’s neighborhood a tsunami danger zone, thereby restricting the area to industrial use only.
When Aihara went to city officials, she was met with apathy. While they have no plans to force the day care out, she said they told her the code violation would fix itself because the ruling would discourage anyone from bringing their children there.
Day care centers normally qualify to receive assistance from Ishinomaki, but Hoikuen Aihara does not.
It is considered an unregistered day care, because it does not meet a list of government standards that regulate operating hours and other procedures.
Aihara opened in 1995 in hopes of cutting the long waiting lists parents faced to enroll children in the city’s registered day care centers. Many Japanese cities face similar shortages of day care space.
Despite the non-enforcement, the day care will have to move anyway, said Toshihiko Fujita, a leader of a local citizen group that supports Hoikuen Aihara.
Within a few years, heavy construction on embankments and other tsunami safety measures will make the area too dusty and noisy for children.
“Just because the center is non-registered, the city won’t help as all,” Fujita said. “The children are the future of Ishinomaki, but the city doesn’t even have policies to help them.”
Fujita described himself as a “walking zombie” for years after his parents died in the tsunami.
He threw himself into volunteer work, but still felt empty.
In January, he heard about Hoikuen Aihara’s plight. He now considers helping the day center “my life’s work,” he said.
The center plans to file for non-profit status in July and hopes to gain approval by the end of the year, Fujita said, making it eligible for tax breaks and facilitating contributions.
They will likely need the financial help when they look for a new home. The cost of land rose quickly as a result of the tsunami and new restrictions on building near the coast.
The day care’s current location deterred some parents from returning with their children, but others say Hoikuen Aihara’s actions during the disaster gave them reason to return.
“I know it is a place I can trust [to leave my daughter],” said Yuko Sato, whose daughter Ayane, 6, graduated today.
Flooding trapped Yuko Sato on the third floor of city hall for three days following the tsunami.
Tomohiro Sato, her husband, picked up Ayane from the day care shortly after the earthquake struck. The two of them ran as quickly as they could to their home, about two miles away.
The tsunami followed them to the steps of their house and sloshed through the first floor.
They survived on a few snacks they bought at Disneyland Tokyo a few days before, which Tomohiro grabbed from the first floor as the tide fell.
Tomohiro and Ayane remained stuck on the second floor of their home for two nights.
“She didn’t cry,” Tomohiro said. “She said, ‘Here, Daddy,’ and offered a snack. I learned how strong children can be.”
The Satos have since repaired their house. Soon, their daughter will go off to a new school. But the Satos said they will always appreciate the help that the children of Hoikuen Aihara received from so many people.
“I feel apologetic that many people from around the world are thinking about us and are supporting us,” Tomohiro said. “But I am very thankful.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.