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OFUNATO, Japan (Reuters) - The Urahama district of this northeastern Japanese coastal city had for centuries marked religious ceremonies, and mourned their dead, with a dynamic sword dance by masked men, accompanied by drums and flutes.
But everything changed after the March 11 tsunami tore into Japan's northeastern coast, sweeping away homes, performers and precious equipment in coastal areas, like Urahama, that had long treasured their traditional performing folk arts.
Now, people in many of the tightly-knit coastal communities fear the disaster may prove to be the final blow for some 100 troupes that had already been struggling to survive as the towns where they were based aged and young people left to seek work.
"There certainly will be some arts that are bound to disappear," said Shutaro Koiwa of Japan Folk Performing Arts Association in Tokyo.
Many performers are determined to go on despite the steep odds, cherishing their centuries-old traditions.
"In our area, it is a given," said 65-year-old Chikara Furumizu of the Urahama Nenbutsu Kenbai, a group of men and children that performs the sword dance to mourn the deceased in Ofunato, a city some 450 km northeast of Tokyo.
"Without it, we would not know what to do."
The dance had always been especially important during Obon, a period in August marked by Buddhist ceremonies to honor the ancestors. In Urahama, performances were staged in front of homes where a family member had died the previous year.
The magnitude 9 quake and massive tsunami that struck the northeast coast on March 11 left more than 20,400 dead or missing and triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years at Fukushima, some 211 km south of Ofunato.
Little remained in the area around Urahama, where more than 100 people were swept away, along with homes and stores.
Though the roughly 40 dance group members all survived, many lost family members and their homes. Costumes, the swords used in performances, masks and musical instruments were either lost or damaged after the tidal wave engulfed their storehouse.
But at Obon, eight men, wearing the usual stern masks and warrior-like outfits -- donated or rented this year -- swung damaged swords and danced to taiko drums and flutes in front of a nursing home where more than 50 people perished.
Amid the dynamic, whirling movements of the dance, the men in their 20s and 30s each paused somberly before a makeshift altar to mourn the dead, pinching a bit of incense ash from a box and bringing it to their forehead before returning it.
Haruka Kariya, a 23-year-old member who fled the tsunami from the fisheries co-op where he worked, said he will stay in Ofunato and continue dancing to give hope to survivors.
"Under this situation in which everything was washed away, we are gathering together. We all know each other for a long time, we have good teamwork, and when we go around homes, our feeling for dancing has been stronger than last year," said Kariya, who lost his grandparents and his home.
"Some people shed tears when they watch us dance and I hope that we can help them, even if it's just a little bit."
Koiwa of Japan Folk Performing Arts Association said the disaster has changed the way that young performers, tasked to carry on the tradition, feel about their art.
"Young people up to now may have somewhat thought they were just dancing and singing what they have learned. But teachers and older people have been saying that now, they are trying to communicate from their heart," he said.
It will take time to recover from the disaster and many things may never be the same. But that won't stop the dancers.
"There are just too many victims. We cannot rest," Furumizu of the Urahama Nenbutsu Kenbai said.
"The most important thing is to look forward."
Editing by Elaine Lies