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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Tsunami Warning to the Future

Masami Ukon

Jun. 9, 2016

Young people in a Japanese city devastated by the 2011 tsunami are working to warn future generations, and make sure they never forget.

Rikuzentakata, in Iwate Prefecture, was devastated by the massive tsunami in March 2011.

Now, in 2016, the wreckage has been removed and the land elevated to protect the area. The city is planning a new shopping district, and people hope Rikuzentakata will be reborn.

A dedicated youth group is working hard to limit the loss of life in future tsunamis.

A group of children are working hard, with a clear purpose, to plant cherry trees. In spring, they will be covered in pink and white flowers.

And these trees aren't just beautiful -- they're also intended to help save lives.

The children are planting them at the edge of an area swamped by the massive tsunami 5 years ago.

They are from a local elementary school.

The sixth-graders planted cherry trees as their graduation project. Some of them lost family members and friends in the disaster.

"I hear that there might be another huge tsunami in 1,000 years. I hope these trees will show people where to run to escape," says one boy.

"Younger kids don't know about the tsunami," says a girl in the group. "So I want to pass down how awful it was."

In 2011, the tsunami peaked at around 20 meters in Rikuzentakata -- far higher than anyone ever expected. More than 1,800 people from the city died or were lost.

A couple of kilometers away from the ocean, recently planted cherry trees stand.

As the water reached the peak depth here, the idea is that in future tsunamis, people can run beyond the line of trees to escape to safety.

With the help of volunteers and donations from across Japan, over 1,000 trees have been planted so far.

Shoma Okamoto heads the project. He grew up in Rikuzentakata.

"If we had known before the disaster that there was potential for such a huge tsunami, so many people wouldn't have died. That regret inspired us to start the project," he says.

The group aims to complete what it calls the "Sakura Line" by planting 17,000 trees along the tsunami's 170-kilometer foot print.

After the disaster, Okamoto learned that the city had been hit by powerful tsunamis in the past.

An 80-year-old stone marker is a reminder of a previous tsunami that killed about 3,000 people in the affected regions. It's a marker warning people not to build houses below this point.

Okamoto and his team chose to use cherry -- a very special tree in Japan. People like to gather around cherry blossoms in springtime. Okamoto's team believes that every time the trees bloom, people will be reminded about the dangers of tsunamis.

"Our ancestors tried to pass that message down, but we didn’t pay attention. I regret that and think that was part of my motivation, too. Stone monuments have their value, but I believe it is also important to find other ways to pass on such important messages,” he says.

One hurdle facing the “Sakura Line” is securing the land to plant the trees. Okamoto's team has been working to build trust and understanding with land owners. They visit Migaku Kumagai, who witnessed the tsunami for himself.

"The tsunami reached this doorway. I heard someone saying that there was a clothes store dummy on top of the debris, so I went to look. It was actually a body," Kumagai says.

He became one of the biggest supporters of Okamoto's project. He now has over 30 cherry trees planted on his land. But he still hasn’t been able to fully deal with what happened.

"Right after the tsunami, I didn't dwell on it, but later I came to feel the need to pass down details of how far the tsunami reached," Kumagai says. "Even now, I want to appreciate the beautiful cherry blossom, rather than thinking about the tsunami. It’s painful to look back on it."

“The cherry trees we are planting represent, in a sense, the experience of the tsunami," Okamoto says. "For people who don’t want to think too much about it, the trees naturally remind them of what happened. Some people tell us they'd like to help, but they’re not quite ready to support the project yet.”

The cherry trees aren't just about saving lives in the future. For people like Fumiko Osaka, they've helped get through the aftermath of the 2011 disaster.

Osaka's home was destroyed when the ocean swallowed it. She almost drowned in the tsunami. Later she found many dead bodies there.

“I went through a lot of hardships. Some days I felt that I couldn't go on. I didn't have my husband, my children were gone. I'd lost everything," Osaka says. "But yesterday, I was excited to see the cherry blossom! That makes me happy -- happy that the trees have been planted.”

Every year, the people who planted the trees come back to visit to see the trees and chat with Osaka.

"When they leave, they always say, 'We’ll be back; please take care of yourself!' Words like that have encouraged me to live," Osaka says.

Far from losing the will to live, Osaka is now looking to new challenges. She began studying English to better communicate with overseas visitors.

Okamoto, who heads the Sakura Line project, also understands how it feels like to lose loved ones. Okamoto lost a close friend in the tsunami. His death has been a driving force in the project.

“My best friend Yuki was a year younger than me, and he lived right across from me. He was such a great guy. Yuki definitely thought about the community more than I ever did,” Okamoto says.

"The Sakura Line project uses the slogan, 'We Feel Frustrated.' That's because I still have a sort of empty feeling left by people who should be here, spaces left behind by our peers, and even younger people. Those sorrows can’t be erased in just five years. It’s hard to pass down pure sadness, so I think it’s very important to use something that’s loved and cherished. I hope the people who live here in 50 or 100 years will be proud of these cherry trees, and will want to share the message they represent."

One hundred and seventy kilometers, and 17,000 cherry trees -- Okamoto and his team hope to complete the Sakura Line in about 20 years.

Young people’s dedication to protecting their hometown is connecting people and spreading hope through the city, little by little.