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Diplomas, and uncertainty, for Japanese pupils

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KESENNUMA, Japan >> Schools here begin in April and hold graduation ceremonies in March; like spring, they represent renewal and rebirth.

On Tuesday morning, in a school meeting hall in this tsunami-ravaged seaport, it became something else: an act of defiance.

Gathering in the shadow of this seaport’s tsunami disaster zone, two solemn and often tearful crowds met to award diplomas to the sixth- and ninth-grade classes of Hashikami Elementary and Junior High schools. Inside the junior high auditorium, hundreds of refugees from the March 11 tsunami rolled up their blankets and moved to the rear to make way for a ritual that any parent would instantly recognize: the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon; the students’ march to the podium; the singing of school songs; the snapping of cell phone photos.

But no one should be fooled. The ceremonies, important rites of passage here, were supposed to take place last week. Instead, an earthquake cracked open the elementary school, and a wall of water swept away homes and families of teachers and students alike. Although no Hashikami elementary students were killed, the body of a ninth grader was identified over the weekend, and two others remain missing.

For parents and teachers, holding the graduation celebrations under those circumstances — and their own — was an act of will, even bravery.

“We thought maybe it was too early for the ceremony,” said Hiroko Sugawara, the ninth-grade principal. “But people in the community and the PTA said, ‘We want to celebrate for these kids, because this is a cruel experience for a 15-year-old.’ I want the surviving kids to shine — to continue their lives.”

Sugawara’s sister and brother have been missing since the tsunami struck, and her house was washed away. Of the two other teachers who played leading roles in the ceremony, one lost his house, and the other’s parental home, in Rikuzentakata, was all but wiped out.

As the 28 ninth graders awaited their diplomas, Shunichi Hatakeyama, 48, sat centered in the front row of parents, holding a photograph of his 15-year-old son, Fumiya. The youngest of three sons, a big, good-looking center fielder on the city youth baseball team, Fumiya was with his mother, Akiko, when the tsunami struck. The two fled separately to high ground. Only she made it.

On Tuesday, Hatakeyama wore Fumiya’s blue athletic shirt and white sneakers. “My son is still missing. If I don’t come, nobody will take his diploma,” he said.

“I want him to come back. My wife wants to hug him. She is totally lost.”

And while the 42 sixth graders fidgeted in their chairs, Ken Miura, a 37-year-old hotel cook and volunteer fireman, sat in the back row of parents. His 12-year-old son, Takumi, is still recovering.

The two were at home, not five minutes from school, when the tsunami warning sounded.

Miura rushed to evacuate neighbors on lower ground, never believing the water could reach his home. He was carried out to sea in an automobile, and Takumi was swept into the ocean for an hour before he was rescued, naked and debris-battered, by firemen.

Takumi was taken to relatives in a distant town, in shock and unable even to talk for days. When he began to speak, “he said he wanted to come to the ceremony,” Miura said, “but I couldn’t get the gasoline to go to him.” The disaster has effectively dried up gasoline supplies for all but emergency permit holders.

Teachers handed over his son’s diploma in a private ceremony after the public one.

Past graduations were ritual new beginnings, the teachers said, but Tuesday’s may be different. Whereas past classes generally stayed together during their school years, the disaster already has scattered students to evacuation centers, and many may wind up in other towns.

The students here made determined efforts to remain upbeat. But many proved unable to hold back tears, whether singing school songs or joining in the brief after-graduation party.

“They tried not to show their sadness, but we couldn’t see them smiling,” said Yasuyuki Toba, one of the ninth-grade teachers who led the ceremony. So to end the party, he led a chant for the students clustered around him.

“Let’s meet again!” he shouted.

The students shouted in unison: “Let’s meet again!”

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