International

'Tree Of Hope' Stands As Poignant Symbol In Japan

When a massive earthquake struck Japan on March 11, triggering a tsunami, the city of Rikuzentakata's famous pine trees were wiped away — except for this one. Now it is a symbol of hope for a devastated nation. i i

hide captionWhen a massive earthquake struck Japan on March 11, triggering a tsunami, the city of Rikuzentakata's famous pine trees were wiped away — except for this one. Now it is a symbol of hope for a devastated nation.

John Burnett/NPR
When a massive earthquake struck Japan on March 11, triggering a tsunami, the city of Rikuzentakata's famous pine trees were wiped away — except for this one. Now it is a symbol of hope for a devastated nation.

When a massive earthquake struck Japan on March 11, triggering a tsunami, the city of Rikuzentakata's famous pine trees were wiped away — except for this one. Now it is a symbol of hope for a devastated nation.

John Burnett/NPR

On the beach facing the Pacific in a city called Rikuzentakata stands a lone pine tree whose bark is scraped and scarred from the tsunami waters. Remarkably, it is still standing tall.

Rikuzentakata has been, effectively, erased from the map of northeastern Japan. Very little remains of this historic low-lying resort town that was popular for its beautiful white-sand beach. One in 10 residents out of the population of 23,000 are dead or missing, and officials privately expect that figure to go much higher.

The great wave of March 11 scraped the city away in one of the most startling displays of complete destruction that anyone has seen along the hundreds of miles of obliterated seascape. Only a few large, gutted structures — a civic gymnasium, a hotel, a high school — remain as indicators that this was once a populated area.

The city fathers had planted pine trees along a mile and a half of beaches more than 200 years ago and they were a familiar, iconic sight for locals and tourists. Now there is one. The Japanese media have dubbed it "the tree of hope" and the stories have prompted people to drive through the apocalyptic scene to take pictures of the pine. A member of the Rikuzentakata education committee says he heard the federal government is interested in commemorating the tree.

Local resident Yasunori Matsuzaka is one of those who braved a cold late spring wind to come and see what everyone has been talking about. "This tree and all the pine trees on the beach were planted by my ancestors," he said, looking up at the tall tree, whose lower branches have been sheared off. "I have lots of feelings about it. I hope this tree becomes a symbol of rebuilding Takata."

(Correspondent John Burnett is part of the NPR team covering the crisis in Japan. He reported Thursday for All Things Considered about the "search for relatives and relief" in Rikuzentakata. Other NPR reports from Rikuzentakata — sometimes spelled as Rikuzen-Takada — include this post about the bravery of emergency workers, Rob Gifford's tale of the devastation, and Stu Seidel's story of the "small Japanese town, swallowed by the sea.")

(Update at 9:40 a.m. ET: Hearing this story reminded us about the tree that survived the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and was later replanted at the site.)

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