The hardships caused by Japan's earthquake and tsunami are adding extra meaning to milestones in life occurring under these extraordinary circumstances.
In the northeastern city of Kesennuma, cameras flash and moist eyes gleam as parents and students sing school songs during a graduation ceremony in the Hashikami Junior High School gym.
The gym has become a temporary shelter for hundreds of evacuees left homeless by the disaster. They watch the ceremony, seated on their blankets. Just outside are mangled trucks, shredded houses and uprooted trees that the raging tsunami strewed across a vast coastal plain.
When the ceremony wraps up, students stack folding chairs.
Moritake Moriya is advisor to the school's parent-teacher association and head of the local emergency services office. He says the PTA considered whether to postpone the graduation, but decided the show must go on.
"Disaster or not, we consider this event a turning point and a chance for each student and each family to take the next step," he says. "Precisely because we have been through this disaster, we must try harder from now on."
Japan's academic calendar is synced to the fiscal year, which ends in March. After graduating, the students will receive the exam scores that determine where they will go to high school. They'll then go on spring break before the start of a new school year in April. Luckily for them, declining populations in rural Japan mean less competition to get into high school.
A diminutive graduate in a blue blazer named Mao Takita says the disaster has changed her life.
"I wanted to be a beautician or something like that," she says. "But after the tsunami, my dreams for the future have changed. I'd like to do something that benefits others. There are so many poor countries, like ... where is it ... Nigeria? I want to help them. I want to volunteer."
Yuta Kajiwara clutches his diploma and a card given to him by members of his volleyball club. He says when the tsunami hit, everyone did what they had practiced in drills and headed straight for the school. But three students did not make it. One died and two are missing. Kajiwara says he has known them since grade school.
"Thank God every member of my family is safe," he says. "But some of my friends have lost their homes or they cannot find their families. I am sorry for their losses and, at the same time, I don't want them to feel depressed."
Before going home, the students have one more thing to do. They give their teachers certificates of appreciation. More tears are shed. It's another bittersweet moment, mixing triumph, grief and apprehension.
This day, a community has mourned its losses, treasured what it still has — and affirmed its determination to get where it's going. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.