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Emotional farewell to 16-year-old schoolboy tsunami victim

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Japan: Emotional goodbyes at funeral
  • 16-year-old Hiroki Sugawara died while visiting his grandparents' house
  • He should have been at school on the day the earthquake and tsunami struck
  • School building sits high above the tsunami-devastated neighborhoods
  • "Keep living for my son," says Hiroki's father to his son's schoolmates

Rikuzentakata, Japan (CNN) -- Most children in Japan are normally celebrating graduation at this time of the year, looking forward to the commencement of the next chapter of their young lives.

But at Rikuzentakata No. 1 Junior High School, students are mourning the end of young lives -- three so far, they say.

On Monday they crowded around a car, carrying the body of their friend, 16-year-old Hiroki Sugawara.

This was not a planned funeral. It was barely a funeral at all. But this was the best his parents could do, given the massive number of fatalities in Japan's historic tsunami.

Hiroki's parents and his two brothers drove his body to the school, now an emergency shelter. Exposing his deeply battered face, crushed in the devastating tsunami, Hiroki's father said he wanted to give his friends a chance to say goodbye to the boy who loved to play soccer with his teammates.

"Don't give up hope," wept Hiroki's father, speaking before two dozen of Hiroki's young friends. "Keep living for my son."

Hiroki shouldn't be dead, said his best friend, Takuma Kinno. Hiroki was absent from school the day the tsunami hit, so he was with his grandparents in their home, sitting on low-lying ground. His friends were at school, which sits high above the tsunami-devastated neighborhoods.

"I've lost my best friend," said Kinno. "Hiroki died young. He should have lived a long life."

The scope of Rikuzentakata's devastation boggles the imagination of the outside observer. Everywhere you look, homes lie like broken sticks for miles. Scattered in the debris, there are signs of shattered lives: a child's toy hammer, a stroller and a 10-speed bicycle.

For the children who lived in these neighborhoods and survived, it's simply incomprehensible, say aid organizations.

"We've already spoken to children having nightmares and unable to sleep. They're frightened of the sea, because they believe it's going to come back. They're frightened of being indoors because the building shook so violently during the earthquake. So there's absolutely a chance that these children will have serious difficulties in coming to terms with what happened to them," says Save the Children's Andrew Wander.

Hiroki Sugawara's family spent only about 10 minutes at the school. They didn't want a scene, they just wanted to give their son's friends a chance to say farewell.

Some of Hiroki's female classmates hugged his mother, who wept in deep, audible sobs. Hiroki's soccer teammates stood crying, unable to approach the car. Hiroki's young brother clutched his hands and bowed his head in a stance of sorrow too mature for his young frame.

Hiroki's parents bowed deep to his son's classmates, as is typical for the end of a Japanese funeral. His father covered his son's face and slid behind the wheel of the car, next to his son.

It defies the natural order for a parent to bury his child. But there is nothing natural or orderly these days for Rikuzentakata.

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