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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Etched in Stone

Rodrigue Maillard

Mar. 15, 2016

A group of high school students who survived the 2011 disaster in northeastern Japan are on a mission. They're putting up large stone tablets and preparing a textbook as a warning about the dangers posed by tsunami.

The students hope their activities will help save lives. But the occasion is also providing them a chance to overcome their sorrow and to move forward.

They call their mission, "protecting lives for a thousand years."

The students are from the port town of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, which suffered crippling damage during the giant tsunami triggered by the quake.

Last month, the Onagawa Stone Memorial of Life was erected. The monument stands 2 meters tall and is over a meter wide. The engraving reads, in part, “Please evacuate to higher ground,” and the stone sits at the spot where the tsunami waters crested.

The monument was built by a group of 15 high school students. Yui Ito is one of them. Her house was destroyed by the tsunami.

"People shouldn't think this spot where the monument is located is safe. I want people to go to higher ground where it's safer," Yui says.

On March 11, 2011, a huge tsunami swept far into the port and inflicted heavy damage on the town. More than 800 people died or remain missing, and about 80 percent of the houses were swept away.

Another student named Airi Katsumata lost her great grandparents in the tsunami. Five years later, they're still missing. They thought it would be safer to stay at home rather than run away. Airi was at school at the time.

"If I could just go back before the quake, I would tell them to go up there to higher ground. I would tell them to get away as fast as they could," Airi says.

Yui and Airi entered Onagawa Junior High School in April 2011, just a month after the disaster.

During their first social sciences class, their teacher wrote on the blackboard, “What can we do for Onagawa?” Students quickly stepped up to the board and started writing ideas.

“'I want to bring tourists to our town,' 'I want to help revive our city,' 'I'd like to research the history of tsunami,'" Abe recalls the messages on the board saying.

"They wrote all these answers one after another. Watching them, I thought they were far more remarkable than I could have imagined."

The children began discussing how to protect people from tsunami, but Yui struggled to talk about the disaster.

"I wondered why we needed to do this in class," Yui says. "I was going through the worst time of my life, and I didn’t want us to even touch on the subject."

But for Airi, she felt it was an opportunity to look ahead.

"The class pushed us to think about what we could do with our experience. Not just feeling sorry for ourselves. It gave me a chance to move forward," she says.

After several classes, the children wrote out specific plans. One outlined how residents in the town might evacuate to higher ground. Another left leaving records of the tsunami.

They eventually proposed building stone monuments in 21 districts. After seeing the children's enthusiasm, adults decided to support them. A stone supplier named Masahiro Yamada donated the stones.

"I sensed the students' determination to keep going forward. I was very moved," Yamada says.

But about $90,000 was still needed. The children asked for donations, even during a school trip to Tokyo.

Donation poured in from inside Japan as well as from overseas. In 6 months they were able to raise enough money to engrave and erect each monument. A ceremony was held in November 2013 to inaugurate the first one.

"If there is a major earthquake, please run to an area higher than this monument," the engraving on it reads.

For Yui, this was the turning point to move forward.

"I never thought this would happen. I was deeply touched, seeing the completed monument standing right in front of me. I felt the biggest change taking place in my heart," Yui says.

Last month, the group unveiled the 11th monument. Each stone has its own haiku poem written by the children right after the disaster.

"I won’t forget, this sense of sorrow, this suffering," one reads.

’I’m home.’ How I wish I could hear that voice," reads another.

Taisuke Yamada also wrote a poem. His dream was to become an archeologist, but his collection of stones disappeared with the tsunami. His poem expresses the importance of trusting a dream through overcoming sadness.

"At least dreams, the great disaster was unable to destroy," it says.

"Other families, friends and teachers supported me while I was distressed. This is how my dream was protected. Somehow it wasn't just mine any longer. It became everyone’s dream. This is why I felt I had to care for it,” Yamada says.

Today, the students are in high school and they're working on a new project. They visit Professor Fumihiko Imamura, a tsunami specialist. The students are putting together a textbook designed especially for children.

They record what they learn, and want to write about the actions of earthquakes and tsunami in ways simple enough for children to understand. Their finished work will be called the “Textbook of Life."

"If junior high school students can understand it then so can adults on a broader level. The results will probably be greater than we specialists imagine. I want them to succeed," says Imamura, who is director at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science.

Abe says adults are finding hope in the children’s forward-looking approach.

"We lost everything in the disaster -- our hometown, our family, our life. It would have been easier for us just to leave this town. Why did the people of Onagawa choose to stay on? That’s because the children are here. Watching them grow, we adults felt a sense of hope. No doubt about it," Abe says.

Five years after the tsunami, the town of Onagawa has a brand new shopping center. But the students fear that the memories of the disaster are already fading.

"It’s crucial to remind people about the importance of life when they are beginning to forget it. The more time passes, the harder we should try," Airi says.

The 21 monuments will be completed by 2018, and the students hope their textbook will be translated and will reach children in the world.

"I've gone through a lot. Not just good things. But I've also gained a lot as we overcame our difficulties together," Yui says. "I want to share that experience with everyone in the country, in the world, with all living people."