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Science & Environment

'Miracle' Tree Stands Tall In Japan After Tsunami


Japan's tsunami and earthquake last year essentially erased the village of Rikuzentakata. Also lost, their famous coastal pine forest, all 70,000 trees, except for one. NPR News's Chris Benderev has the story of the miracle pine tree.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Yoshihisa Suzuki is standing on the beach, flipping through old photos, looking for one in particular. Then he finds it.

YOSHIHISA SUZUKI: (Foreign language spoken)

BENDEREV: The picture's of the old forest, lush and verdant. It was over there, he says, where those bulldozers are now.


BENDEREV: Suzuki is the head of the local forest group, which doesn't have a lot left to its name, except for the miracle pine. It made it through four tsunamis.

SUZUKI: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is saying, like, I'm still here doing my best, so the citizens of Rikuzentakata, I know it will be very hard for you but work hard.

BENDEREV: The tree became the new symbol of the town - on Japanese TV, on postcards, even on a commemorative coin. But the ground here is now full of salt, and in May the miracle pine tree died. And that's when city hall made a bold decision. It decided to preserve the tree as a memorial, which meant cutting it up and shipping it away for a sort of arboreal taxidermy.

The miracle pine will return next year for the second anniversary of the disaster, but some people in Rikuzentakata aren't happy about the project's cost - nearly $2 million.

SATOKO IWAI: (Foreign language spoken)

BENDEREV: Satoko Iwai(ph) runs a gift shop in town, and it's not the money that bugs him the most about the tree. It's everything that gets forgotten when people talk about it. He brings out a poster of the old downtown.

IWAI: (Through Translator) OK. So this is our shop. OK. And then this is my next door neighbor. The owner and his wife died. Here the grandmother passed away. Next door, also passed away. Yeah.

BENDEREV: He tells us half his neighborhood didn't make it.

IWAI: (Through Translator) So that's why I'm saying, you know, we don't care about the pine tree.

BENDEREV: Up the street at city hall, Theoshi Yamada(ph) works as part of the town's reconstruction effort.

THEOSHI YOMATA: (Foreign language spoken)

BENDEREV: He wants to remind people they're using donations, not tax dollars, to pay for this tree. And the number one priority, he says, is still the people.

YOMATA: (Through Translator) Some of the older people tell me I don't want to die in temporary housing. One of them said, I'm 80 years old. I can't wait too long.

BENDEREV: When I hear that, Yamada says, I want to work harder to get the town back, but we don't have to give up on the miracle to do it.

Chris Benderev, NPR News.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.