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Japanese tsunami survivor, 79, looks ahead

Ian Williams / NBC News

Junko Takashi, 79, stands outside her temporary home in the tsunami-devastated town of Otsuchi, Japan. All of the town's residents over 65 have a yellow flag they put out in the morning and take down in the evening. If no flag appears in the morning, then officials come and check on them.

OTSUCHI, Japan – When 79-year-old Junko Takashi saw the tide fast receding in the bay below her house, she remembered the warnings of her mother and her grandmother, that this was a sign of a tsunami.

But still she hesitated.

"I lived on high ground, on the hillside," she said. "I never thought the water could reach here."

She decided to take no chances, and leaving all her belongings behind her, she climbed to higher ground. She didn't see the tsunami rolling in, but remembers the terrible noise – like a waterfall, only far, far louder, she recalled.

By the time it was over, all that was left of her house were its foundations.

Some 70 percent of her town, Otsuchi, was destroyed and 10 percent of the town’s population of 16,000 are dead or missing. Its fishing industry, the backbone of the local economy, was obliterated.

Yellow flag marks sign of life
One year on and Takashi lives in a temporary home, consisting of a tiny living room, narrow kitchen and bathroom. It's one of a cluster of 80 temporary homes erected on the outskirts of what remains of Otsuchi.

She lives alone, her belongings neatly arranged in little cubicles around her. We could barely squeeze into her living room as she pointed to the television, fridge, microwave and heater, all donated by charities who were at the forefront of a massive aid operation in the weeks and months after the disaster.

Toru Yamanaka / AFP - Getty Images

This combination of pictures from Otsuchi, Japan shows a catamaran sightseeing boat washed by the tsunami onto a two-storey home on April 16, 2011 (top) and the same area on January 16, 2012 (bottom). Click on the photo to see a SLIDESHOW of before and after pictures.

Now much of that initial support has gone. "We're on our own now," she said.

"You've got to be positive. I am 79-years-old, who knows how many years I have left."

She told me that before the tsunami she was pretty self-sufficient, since she had land to grow all the vegetables she needed, and her two brothers were fishermen. Now she had to buy everything with her pension, while trying to save for an uncertain future.

But free temporary housing, in which 2,000 of Otsuchi's people now live, is only available for two years.

Outside her home, and outside those of many of her neighbors, flutters a little yellow flag. I asked her what that was for.

"They are for everybody over 65 and living alone," she replied. They are asked to put the flags out in the morning and take them down in the evening. If no flag appears in the morning, then officials will come and check on them.

Ian Williams / NBC News

A mountain of debris in the Japanese town of Otsuchi.

Mountains of debris and uncertain plans
Otsuchi appears to have made great strides in cleaning up the twisted wreckage that was once their town, and removing the fishing boats flung inland.

Looking down from the surrounding hills and all you see is a flat plain with a dusting of snow, just the foundations marking where buildings used to stand.

But the remains of the town has essentially been scooped up and piled into vast mountains of debris, which will take years to dispose of.

Takashi believes she will be allocated a new apartment once she leaves her temporary home, but the town of Otsuchi has been slow to draw up plans for the future. There is still no blueprint for what will replace a town virtually wiped from the map.

The local mayor has pledged to build a new 50-foot high seawall, more than twice the height of the one tossed aside by the tsunami. But there is no agreement as to where any new town will be built, nor how it can be made economically viable.

Elderly people, who dominate many of these small coastal towns, are wary of grand plans for new (and more economically sustainable) towns. They form an important political group.

"I want to live where I used to live," Takashi said. "I was comfortable there."

Staying positive
The future looks daunting, but Takashi is remarkably upbeat, showing me photos of some of the charity workers and celebrities who have visited over the months.

"I like visitors. I like to talk with people," she said.

"It's always been my policy to be positive about what lies ahead."