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Millions of Japanese are experiencing great hardships, but life incredibly goes on in places devastated by the quake and tsunami.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on one of life's rites of passage at a junior high school in the northeastern city of Kesennuma.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

ANTHONY KUHN: Cameras flash and moist eyes glisten as parents and students sing school songs at a graduation ceremony at the Hashikami Junior High School's 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, which the raging tsunami strewed across a vast coastal plain.

The ceremony wraps up, and students stack folding chairs.

Moritake Moriya is adviser 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.

Mr. MORITAKE MORIYA: (Through Translator) Disaster or not, we consider this event a turning point and a chance for each student and each family to take the next step. Precisely because we have been through this disaster, we must try harder from now on.

KUHN: After graduating, the students will receive the exam scores that determine where they will go to high school. Then, they'll go on to 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 schools.

A diminutive graduate in a blue blazer named Mao Takita says the disaster has changed her life.

Ms. MAO TAKITA: (Through Translator) I wanted to be a beautician or something like that. 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.

KUHN: Yuta Kajiwara clutches his diploma and a large graduation card given to him by members of his volleyball club. He says that after the earthquake struck, 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 still missing. Kajiwara says he has known them since grade school.

Mr. YUTA KAJIWARA: (Through Translator) Thank God, every member of my family is safe. 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

KUHN: 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.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Kesennuma.

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