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A man searches for belongings at the site where his home once stood in the residential part of Otsuchi after the area was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami March 22, 2011. (DAMIR SAGOLJ/Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
A man searches for belongings at the site where his home once stood in the residential part of Otsuchi after the area was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami March 22, 2011. (DAMIR SAGOLJ/Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Hope stirs in a devastated Japan town Add to ...

There was always a lot of symbolism involved in climbing the unnamed hill at the centre of this once-picturesque fishing town. At the bottom stands a two-storey middle school, Japan's equivalent of a junior high, which each year holds a ceremony to celebrate those moving up to Otsuchi's high school, the lone building atop the hill.

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Climbing the hill in these dark days is to move between death and life, sorrow and hope.

The middle school has been converted into a makeshift morgue since the tsunami tore through northeastern Japan on March 11, washing through the middle school and turning its playground into a junkyard of smashed trees, cars and bicycles. The high school is the gathering place for survivors, a place where a semblance of normalcy is battling to return to a place where things will never be the same.

Among the casualties of the disaster was the middle school's meticulously planned graduation ceremony, which was to have been held March 12, the day after the tsunami hit.

Instead, nearly two weeks on, the gymnasium of the Otsuchi middle school is still a place of mourning. On Wednesday, dozens of bodies laid in neat rows - some in coffins, others covered with plastic sheets - were waiting for relatives to come and identify them on the floor where students once practised volleyball and martial arts.

"Try your best," implored a black-and-white sign hanging over the families who walked through, looking for familiar faces among the dead.

"I just feel so sad," said Nei Huiyuan, a 15-year-old student who was a year away from her own graduation to high school. She said the middle school's students were all safe because classes ended 45 minutes before the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, but that several of her teachers were missing.

"We don't know if anyone was still here," said Satomi, a 14-year-old who asked that her family name not be used. She paused to watch as police carried a newly identified corpse out of the school gym and into a waiting truck. "We've had no contact with our teachers."



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The two girls said they had come to see what had become of their school. Though they stood for a long while in the falling snow, watching the bodies come and go through the gymnasium door, they never crossed the threshold to see what had become of their gymnasium.

The town around them remained a vast sea of rubble, with soldiers still excavating bodies to add to the city's death toll. More than 1,400 of this town's pretsunami population of 16,000 are officially recognized as dead or missing, and that toll is expected to rise.

As heartbreaking as the scene at the Otsuchi Middle School is, the high school on the hill above is seeing the town's first stirrings of revival. As one of the Otsuchi's few undamaged structures, the three-storey building is now an evacuation camp for some 600 survivors of the waves.

Even as they distribute food, water and blankets to their temporary tenants, the high school's teachers and staff are thinking about how to accomplish the seemingly impossible goal they've set for themselves: starting the spring semester on schedule on April 20.

It's not going to be easy. The school's classrooms are currently stuffed with evacuees who in most cases have lost their homes and have no place else to go. Six of the school's students are among the missing, and many of their classmates are just starting to conclude that they're dead.

Many of those who have survived lost their notebooks, textbooks and school uniforms in the rushing black water. Some of the students who happened to be inside the out-of-session school on March 11 haven't left the building since.

"This is where we used to watch videos and do experiments. Now it's our house," said 17-year-old Anna Miura, waving her hand around a biology classroom that has been converted into a dorm room for six girls who have been separated from their parents since the tsunami. Mattresses and blankets covered the floor, while the desks were buried under empty water bottles and noodle packets.

The stranded students pass the time volunteering in the kitchen and playing cards, Ms. Miura said.

Despite the complexity of the situation, school headmaster Kazuo Takahashi said he fully intends to have Otsuchi high school open on time on April 20. The students need that normalcy in their lives, he said, even at the cost of moving the evacuees elsewhere.

"We want to reopen as a place where the students can get together and encourage each other," he said, standing in the office from which he was co-ordinating both the distribution of supplies to evacuees and the efforts to get the school back on track. "We want to give them some hope about a better future, because right now the students are so worried about what's going on. To get back to school, to get back to that routine, means almost everything to them."

For a man who had been asked to fill multiple high-pressure roles every day since the disaster hit, and on little sleep, Mr. Takahashi was remarkably composed and optimistic.

The mask slipped only when a reporter pointed out that his wall calendar still read March 11, the day of the tsunami. "I leave it there because that's the day everything stopped," he said, blinking back sudden and unwanted tears.

He won the battle and kept his composure, straightening his posture a little as if to emphasize that he remained in control of his own emotions, if not quite the situation around him. "We will do our best for the future," he said.

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