MINAMISANRIKU, Japan – A lone tree. An elementary school where more than 70 students and teachers perished. A small hill that punctuates the otherwise flat landscape.
They are legacies that still stand in northern Japan's coastal towns, five years after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people. Each has its own story.
The single pine tree remained upright from a stand of thousands washed away along the coast in Rikuzentakata. Though it later died, it has been restored with artificial materials and put back where it was found as a symbol of hope and survival.
The future of several buildings is more contentious. Some people want them preserved as memorials of the tragedy. Others want them destroyed to erase the memory.
The two-story Okawa Primary School, where so many died, once echoed with the laughter of students. The only sounds today are heavy trucks carrying soil or construction materials to rebuild this area along a river in Ishinomaki.
The skeleton of the three-story disaster prevention headquarters in Minamisanriku, where 43 workers died as the tsunami washed over it, sticks up amid ongoing work around it to raise the city's ground level.
Mayor Jin Sato, who survived by clinging to a railing on the disaster center's rooftop as waves washed over it, said recently that citizens are being given 15 more years to decide the building's fate. He noted it wasn't until about 20 years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that that city officially decided to preserve the building known as the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The 6-meter (20-foot) artificial hill in Natori, built so fishermen in olden days could check the seas to see if it was safe to fish, now looks over a vast emptiness. A small but steady stream of visitors climbs "Weather Hill" to pay respects at a memorial for about 1,000 residents killed by the tsunami.
Raising the ground may save lives in the future, but the scars of the past never heal easily.
Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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