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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to the region of northeastern Japan hit by last month's earthquake and tsunami. The area called Tohoku is largely rural and agrarian, with a traditional way of life. And in a country that has the oldest population in the world, Tohoku is where you find the most seniors. Soon, the government must decide whether to rebuild about two dozen seaside cities and towns that were destroyed or move the residents to higher ground.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, relocation, if it happens, will be hardest on the elderly.

JOHN BURNETT: The fishing town of Yamada was in slow decline, even before the epic tsunami swallowed it whole. In the last three decades, Yamada had lost 26 percent of its population, mostly young people who moved to larger cities in search of opportunity.

Today, 28 percent of the city is over 65, and the decisions they must make after the tsunami are wrenching. Seventy-three-year-old housepainter Tokuji Yamazaki stands on the porch of his wrecked home.

Mr. TOKUJI YAMAZAKI (Housepainter): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: He says he's can't decide whether to stay or to move. Since we experienced this terrifying tsunami, I don't know what to do, he says. We've decided to tear this house down. I have a feeling I want to move away, but we have so many friends here.

Many of the newly homeless elderly have been brought here to the gymnasium of Yamada High School. Evacuees sit cross-legged on futons. There seems to be a lot of staring into space. It's loud. It's crowded. It's cold at night. They all want to go home, but there is no home anymore.

Mr. SUNPEI ABIKO (Truck Driver): (Through translator) I want to stay in Yamada.

BURNETT: Sunpei Abiko is a 67-year-old truck driver.

Mr. ABIKO: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: There's a local saying: bounty from the sea, bounty from the soil -oysters, scallops and wakame seaweed from the ocean and prized matsutake mushrooms from the mountain.

Mr. ABIKO: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Abiko can't imagine leaving. But he says his house was washed away, he cannot afford a new one, and he doesn't know what the government will do for him.

Indeed, the central government doesn't know what it's going to do, either. Last week, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a press conference he will shortly appoint a special panel to come up with a blueprint to rebuild the coast.

Prime Minister NAOTO KAN (Japan): (Through translator) We should consider having new homes built on higher ground by leveling mountainous areas, with residents commuting to fishing ports and fisheries along the coast.

BURNETT: There are no good options. Do they raise the seawalls and reconstruct the low-lying towns? Or do they relocate the populations away from the tsunami zone? That's easier said than done, according to John Traphagan, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the Tohoku region of Japan.

Professor JOHN TRAPHAGAN (Anthropologist, University of Texas, Austin): Rural Japan is not like West Texas, for example, with large areas of open space. It's populated everywhere. There are rice fields and there are houses all over the place. So it's not like there's really any empty place you could put a new community.

BURNETT: Traphagan says the emotional dislocation of moving elders away from their communities would be profound.

Prof. TRAPHAGAN: They've lived their whole lives in that same place, and that's where they want to live and that's where they want to die.

BURNETT: Their ties to place are so strong that many seniors are reluctant even to leave the unpleasant evacuation centers close to their old neighborhoods. But some have accepted invitations to spend a few weeks at an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot spring hotel.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Tei Taro and Kiyoko Abe are widows in their late 70s whose houses were swept away. They were already friends. They belonged to the same morning walking group in Yamada. The disaster has brought them even closer.

Ms. TEI TARO: (Through translator) The onsen is really healing. We are so grateful. I haven't had a hot bath for 10 days. We can stretch our legs, make new friends in the onsen bath.

BURNETT: The two women sit in an overstuffed sofa in the lobby of the posh Mori No Kaze hotel, with its artificial cherry tree and koi fish swimming in clear pools.

Ms. TARO: (Through translator) What do you think about living on the hill? There are lots of people who don't want to live on the coast anymore.

Ms. KIYOKO ABE: (Through translator) It's difficult for me to buy land and build a house on the hill since I'm almost 80. I don't know how many more years I have, and I'm on my own.

Ms. TARO: (Through translator) We're having a great time here, but we really love Yamada and we want to go back.

Ms. ABE: We'd be very sad if Yamada disappears. We could never leave Yamada.

BURNETT: The problem, of course, is that Yamada no longer exists.

John Burnett, NPR News, in northern Japan.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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