The old Otsuchi town government building in Iwate Prefecture, where 28 staff members perished in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. People are visiting the building to pay their respects to the victims before the structure is demolished. (Yosuke Fukudome and Shigetaka Kodama)

OTSUCHI, Iwate Prefecture--Some visitors are just curious, but most come to pay last respects before demolition of a building here that serves as a haunting reminder of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

The old two-story concrete town government office building, now just a shell, is where 28 staff members perished.

Otsuchi town authorities decided it must be torn down, even though some local residents want it to be preserved as a legacy of the tragedy.

Officials are now checking for the presence of asbestos, as it would pose a serious health hazard once full-scale demolition work starts.

Many believe this will be last summer to see the structure.

Asahi Shimbun reporters were present at the site from Aug. 10 through Aug. 13, noting that at least 309 people visited over the period.

The two-story building is now fenced and shielded by scaffolding. A small roofed shrine with Buddhist statues was set up by local residents so visitors and mourners can leave flowers.

The site has become a place of prayer for Otsuchi's tsunami victims.

Many were visiting for the first time, and most were from out of town.

On the afternoon of Aug. 10, Honami Ito, 22, turned up with a childhood friend. Ito is studying at a Tokyo university, and was visiting her family here for the summer break.

“The town has changed so much and I can’t tell certain places, but I well remember how it was like around the town government building,” she said.

As dusk beckoned, Kazuhiro Ishikawa, 53, arrived at the shrine. He used to teach at a local elementary school.

He came to mourn a colleague who perished in the tsunami. It was his first visit to the shrine.

“It took me seven years to come here to pray,” Ishikawa said, adding that he was prompted to come after learning that the site would be demolished shortly.

Eiji Iwama, a local resident who is living in public housing for disaster victims, came by early Aug. 11 clutching a broom.

Iwama, 64, expressed a sense of guilt that “someone like me” survived the tsunami, while a childhood friend working for the town office died in the disaster. He said he got caught up in the waves, but managed to reach safety.

He has been cleaning and sweeping the area around the building twice a week for more than seven years.

A man in his 60s, whose daughter worked and died in the building, visited the shrine before heading off to work.

“I understand that the building must go,” the man said. “But I hope a place will be built where I can offer prayers.”

Visitor numbers increased after lunchtime.

Reasons for visiting varied from to “give prayers” to “part of a business workshop program” to “for research for summer holiday homework.”

Many visitors said the building provided a strong visual warning of the horror of the tsunami generated by the magnitude-9.0 offshore Great East Japan Earthquake. At the same time, many said they understood that bereaved families could not stand seeing it.

Takao Shimazu, 64, a construction manager from Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, was eagerly studying the damage and the structure.

Shimazu said he visits tsunami-damaged buildings and structures across the disaster-stricken Tohoku region every year to remind him that he “must never build perfunctory buildings.”

On the evening of Aug. 11, a local resident in her 60s summed up local feelings.

“Pulling it down will make us cry, and keeping it will make us cry,” said the woman. “That is our honest feeling.”

(This article was written by Shigetake Kodama and Yosuke Fukudome.)