Graduating high school seniors in disaster-hit northeastern Japan closed a chapter on their school days on a bittersweet note, remembering classmates who died on March 11, 2011, and thinking about the futures of their damaged hometowns.
Takata High School in tsunami-stricken Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, held its graduation ceremony on March 1 at a temporary school building in neighboring Ofunato, where survivors are living. Twenty-two Takata students were killed in the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Photographs of 12 students, members of the graduating class who died March 11, were placed on empty chairs. In the same way for surviving students, teachers called each of the names of the 12, pausing after each name as if awaiting a response.
Bereaved families observed the ceremony. Tadashi Endo and his wife lost their eldest daughter, Ami, who was a member of the school's swimming team. The earthquake struck while she was practicing in a pool outside the school. She was swept away by the tsunami at a designated center where she had been evacuated.
"If the shelter had been on a higher ground, my daughter would have been safe," Endo said.
He is still unable to come to terms with his feelings. Despite that, he attended the graduation ceremony, because, "I believe she is also here now, and I cannot let her be alone."
He could not hold back his tears after he found one of Ami's close friends cradling her photo.
Students at schools near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant ended their high school days away from their familiar campuses. They finished at schools in places where they were forced to relocate.
Futaba High School, about 3 kilometers from the plant, held this year's graduation at a hall in Tamura. The school's students were dispersed to the cities of Fukushima, Koriyama, Iwaki and Aizuwakamatsu after the earthquake struck. After a year of separation, they enjoyed their reunion with hugs and smiles and said goodbye to one another.
Representing the graduates, Ryota Igari said in his speech about March 11, "Since that day, our destinies have greatly changed."
An evacuation order had been issued March 12. The first hydrogen explosion occurred at the plant that afternoon.
"We have not been allowed to enter the place we were born and raised," Igari said. "I was desperately worried day after day about what would happen to us and our school."
The school resumed classes at another place last May. But many of Igari's friends moved out of the prefecture, and he and other friends who remained had to live apart from one another. He also had to leave his textbooks and notebooks at his school and home in Okuma. All the students did get together on occasions to cheer the school's baseball team and go on school field trips. They exchanged words of encouragement.
Igari plans on attending a university in Tokyo and eventually becoming a teacher in Fukushima.
"Being together again with my classmates is a lifelong memory," he said. "That will give me the power to reach my goals."
After the ceremony, he said softly, "I wanted to graduate with all my classmates in Futaba."
Nine high schools in Fukushima are operating away from their original places.
Miyagi Marine Senior High School held its graduation at the school's gym, marking the first return of the students since the disaster. The school has been holding classes at a temporary building about 13 kilometers away, after the original building was greatly damaged by the tsunami.
Electricity and tap water have yet to be restored. School officials installed generators and makeshift toilets for the graduation ceremony.
Forty-four of the 107 new graduates still live in temporary houses or with their relatives. One was killed by the tsunami.
"Kazuki, we will graduate along with you, even though you are not here," 18-year-old Hikaru Hiratsuka said of his late friend in his speech.
Kazuki Saito had been unable to escape the black waters of the tsunami while evacuating. Hiratsuka said his friend was kind and gave encouragement to everybody.
"Please watch down on us from heaven," Hiratsuka asked of Saito at the close of his speech.
The graduates will now make their own ways in the world. Hiratsuka said they will lead efforts to rebuild the Tohoku region.
At the end of the ceremony, the voices of all the students singing the school song echoed in the gym, "Oars to advance will cut the waves."
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