Students at the Iwaki Kaisei Senior High School in the Onahama district of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, lower the Blue Peter flag after the day's work is over on June 24. (Takemichi Nishibori)

All aboard: Nautical students dream of sailing back home (Asahi, 2011/07/09)

By Takemichi Nishibori

IWAKI, Fukushima Prefecture–Hoisting the Blue Peter maritime signal flag tells sailors: “All persons should report on board, as the vessel is about to proceed to sea.”

At Iwaki Kaisei Senior High School in the Onahama district of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, the Blue Peter is run up on the roof every day as a sign that no one has given up hope.

The school is the only high school in the prefecture that specializes in fishery and maritime affairs. But what the sea gives, it can also take away, and the high school was badly damaged by the tsunami that followed the March earthquake.

All students now take classes at a neighboring high school.

The flag on the roof expresses the desire of the students to start a journey to the past, to the days when their school and their lives were still whole. To get back at least a little of what they lost, they have started cleaning up their school and its grounds.

The tsunami destroyed the ground floor of the school’s main building, and flattened a one-story training building. One student, a boy, died. Now, some of the students have been forced to live away from their homes.

Signal flags were once indispensible on ships at sea. These days they are more often used as training devices at maritime schools like Iwaki Kaisei Senior High School than as critical pieces of equipment.

There are 40 different signal flags, named after alphanumeric characters. They can be used in combinations, but each flag carries its own meaning. The P flag or the Blue Peter, a white rectangle in the middle of a blue field, was recovered from among rubble in front of the principal’s office.

“The flag symbolizes how we feel as we compare the school to a ship,” said Yuki Takahashi, 18, who heads the student council.

After an inspection, a decision was made to continue using the school building after repairs. Following the decision, the student council and other volunteers began hoisting the Blue Peter on the radio tower on the roof and cleaning up the classrooms from the second through fourth floors.

They carried lockers and desks out into corridors, swept and mopped the classroom floors. Every weekday, the flag is raised in the morning and taken down in the evening.

After classes on June 24, 20 male and female students arrived by bicycle and on foot.

“Even classrooms on the third floor are covered with sand,” said Fuko Kobayashi, 17, a second-year student. She noted that under normal circumstances Morse code classes would have already started. But at the school providing temporary classrooms there is no equipment.

“Lectures alone are boring,” she said. “I wish things to be as they were.”

On days when they have no cleaning to do, the students use their ropework skills to braid cellphone straps in the shape of life buoys.

An Iwaki Kaisei Senior High School student holds one of the braided straps with a miniature life preserver attached. (Takemichi Nishibori)

They plan to send them to high schools across Japan, which sent them notebooks, pencils and other items following the disaster, as a token of gratitude. The students have already finished making 150 of the 200 they plan to make.

They also plan to solicit, using their website, donations to replace their swept-away equipment for club activities, which they hope to resume.

All these activities aiming for a return home came to be called the “Blue Peter Project.” Local residents welcome it, saying the name is appropriate for a town of fishermen.

The Onahama City Planning Citizens Conference is considering using the Blue Peter as a banner symbolizing community reconstruction.