A monument to disaster and survival

This battered building stands as a symbol of both the powerful forces of nature and the survival instincts of human beings.

In 1998, the old buildings of Ukedo Elementary School were replaced by a robust two-story reinforced concrete construction. The school’s close ties to the sea were reflected in the new design: an observation tower designed to mimic the form of sails on the left; a large gymnasium whose form mimics a ship on the right. Details such as stair railings and decorative tiles based on the marine life on which Ukedo’s livelihood depended were included in the main entry hall, center, and elsewhere in the school. The tsunami was so high that it reached the second floor of the observation tower (white line on blue sign).

The remains of this elementary school are a remarkable memorial, paying testament to the incredible destructive force of the March 11, 2011 tsunami—and to survival. Ukedo Elementary School, one of six elementary schools operated prior to the 2011 disaster by the town of Namie, has been dubbed “the miracle school” by locals. All students and staff successfully evacuated with no loss of life before the buildings were engulfed by the tsunami.

Ukedo Elementary School had one class in each grade level at the time of the earthquake, with a total of 93 students. Of them, 82 were present at the time of the earthquake. The first leg of the route through the memorial takes visitors though the ruins of the classrooms and staff areas on the first floor. Walls are missing, and furniture and equipment lie twisted where the tsunami left them.

The school was founded in 1873 in the coastal fishing village of Ukedo. It sits just 300 meters from the ocean, about 5 kilometers north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. When the powerful earthquake struck at 2:46 pm on March 11, 2011 and the first tsunami warning was broadcast minutes later, school staff immediately urged the 82 students who were present that day to evacuate to a nearby mountain. All were safely on the mountainside when the tsunami destroyed the school 40 minutes later. The tsunami totally obliterated the village of Ukedo; 154 residents perished, and many more are missing and presumed dead. But an entire generation of schoolchildren survived due to the quick thinking and preparedness of their teachers, their own resourcefulness, and their stamina.

This first-floor corridor looks towards the lunchroom, with the principal’s office on the immediate left. A large heavy steel safe lies on its back where it was tossed across the room by the force of the tsunami. Important documents were retrieved from the water-filled safe in 2016, and some are displayed in the memorial’s entry pavilion. The safe was in good condition when it was opened, but exposure to rain and salt air has since caused it to deteriorate.

The day following the earthquake, the town of Namie, including Ukedo, was ordered evacuated due to radioactive fallout from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Powerplant. Although the evacuation order for Ukedo was lifted in 2017, the residents’ homes and businesses had vanished without a trace. In the years following the 2011 disaster, the ruins of Ukedo Elementary school had become a site of pilgrimage for many, and support for preserving it as a memorial was widespread. The town of Namie decided to leave the structures and their contents as the tsunami had left them, and to make minimal alterations in the name of safety and accessibility. Simple paths were cleared through the rubble-strewn interior, leaving visitors surrounded by evidence of the tsunami’s destructive force.

Because Ukedo was inside the compulsory evacuation zone due to radioactive contamination, it was inaccessible for years. Homes, schools, and other buildings remained untouched until limited access was restored in 2013. Although some cleanup of the school has been done for safety and health reasons, items like this forlorn child’s sneaker still lie where the tsunami left them in 2011.

After passing through a newly constructed entry pavilion, the route takes visitors though the ruins of the classrooms and staff areas on the first floor. Walls have disappeared, and furniture and equipment lie twisted where the tsunami left them. The lunch room and kitchen are visible from the exterior corridor the students used to escape, and the interior of the gymnasium is visible from several sides. The tsunami reached a level 10 centimeters above the second floor and the classrooms and corridors on that floor are incongruously intact. Information panels are placed throughout the memorial, and the second floor houses additional displays. The school will be left as it is, kept safe for visitors but decaying and open to the elements.

The blackboards of the abandoned school were used for impromptu communications after the disaster. Initially only rescue and recovery personnel were able to enter the school buildings, and many left messages of encouragement. Adult graduates and other town residents were occasionally allowed temporary entry into the town, and they also left written messages. When students who had experienced the earthquake were finally allowed to visit briefly in 2014, many left heartfelt prayers and wishes of their own.
Remains of the earthquake - Namie Town Ukedo Elementary School


Remains of the earthquake – Namie Town Ukedo Elementary School
  • Address
    Ukedo Mochidaira, Namie-machi, Futaba-gun, Fukushima Prefecture 979-1522
  • Access
  • Tel
  • Hours
    9:30-16:30 (Last Admission 16:00)
  • Admission fee
    Adults, 300 yen; High school students, 200 yen; Elementary and junior high school students, 100 yen; Free for preschoolers
  • Website