The magnitude 9.0 earthquake unleashed a wall of water that hit Japan’s northeast coast, killing nearly 16,000 and leaving nearly 3,300 unaccounted for. The country is still grappling with the human, economic and political costs, reports Reuters.
In the devastated northeastern coastal town of Rikuzentakata, a siren sounded at 2:46 p.m. – the exact time the magnitude-9.0 quake struck on March 11, 2011 – and a Buddhist priest in a purple robe rang a huge bell at a damaged temple overlooking a barren area where houses once stood.
At the same time in the seaside town of Onagawa, people facing the sea pressed their hands together in silent prayer, tells The Huff Post.
In the port town of Ofunato, hundreds of black-clad residents gathered to lay white chrysanthemums in memory of the town’s 420 dead and missing.
“We can’t just stay sad. Our mission is to face reality and move forward step by step,” said Kosei Chiba, 46, who lost his mother and wife in the disaster. “But the damage the town suffered was too big and our psychological scars are too deep. We need a long time to rebuild.”
At a memorial service in Tokyo’s National Theater, 78-year-old Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stood in silence with hundreds of other people dressed in black.
“Our predecessors who brought prosperity to Japan have repeatedly risen up from crises, every time becoming stronger,” Noda said. “We will stand by the people from the disaster-hit areas and join hands to achieve the historic task of rebuilding.”
The earthquake was the strongest recorded in Japan’s history, and set off a tsunami that swelled to more than 65 feet (20 meters) in some spots along the northeastern coast, destroying tens of thousands of homes and bringing widespread destruction.
The emperor voiced concern about the difficulties of decontaminating the land around the plant.
“In order to make the area inhabitable again, we face the difficult problem of removing radiation,” Akihito said in a brief address. “We shall not let our memory of the disasters fade, pay attention to disaster prevention and continue our effort to make this land an even safer place to live.”
Just a kilometer (half a mile) from Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco) wrecked Fukushima plant, where reactor meltdowns triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, residents of the abandoned town of Okuma were allowed back for just a few hours to honor the dead.
“It was a wonderful place. If it wasn’t for all that has happened, I’d be able to come back. But thanks to Tepco, I wasn’t even able to search for the bodies of my relatives,” said Tomoe Kimura, 93, who lost four members of her family in the tsunami, two of whom were never found.
The tsunami also knocked out the vital cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing meltdowns at three reactors and spewing radiation into the air. Some 100,000 residents who were forced to flee remain in temporary housing or with relatives, and a 12-mile (20-kilometer) area around the plant is still off limits.
“We are angry at Tepco and came here to show our anger,” said Tomoe Suzuki, 65, a restaurant owner and chef.
“The earthquake was something that was unavoidable because it was a natural disaster, but you can’t stay quiet about Fukushima because it’s a man-made disaster,” she said, marching with about 12,000 other protesters to form a “human chain” around the parliament building in the capital of Tokyo.
Politicians and bureaucrats drew fire for the chaotic response to the Fukushima disaster and disappointed many with their failure to seize the moment to tackle the ills which have plagued Japan for over two decades.
Tepco, criticized by many for its failure to prepare for the disaster, issued a fresh apology.
“Each and every member of our company and its group remembers March 11 and will work with our all hearts to solve challenges with safety as our first priority,” Tepco President Toshio Nishizawa, who marked the anniversary at the plant, said in a statement.
Only two of Japan’s 54 reactors are now running while those shut down for regular inspections undergo special tests to check their ability to withstand similar disasters. They could all go offline by the end of April amid local opposition to restarting them.
The Japanese government has pledged to reduce reliance on nuclear power, which supplied about 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs before the disaster, but says it needs to restart some nuclear plants during the transition period.
Enormous risks and challenges lie ahead at the plant, including locating and removing melted nuclear fuel from the inside of the reactors and disposing spent fuel rods. Completely decommissioning the plant could take 40 years.
Slow progress in drawing up plans for the tsunami-damaged and radiation-contaminated region is deepening the misery of survivors, about 326,000 of whom are still homeless, including 80,000 evacuated from the vicinity of the Fukushima plant.
Prime Minister Noda has acknowledged failures in the government’s response to the disaster, including being too slow in relaying key information and believing too much in “a myth of safety” about nuclear power.