TOKYO (Kyodo) — Japan marked the fourth anniversary Wednesday of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s northeastern region, left more than 18,000 people dead or missing and triggered the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis.
The anniversary came as reconstruction in the hard-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima has not progressed as planned, with many evacuees still forced to live away from their hometowns amid the ongoing decommissioning work at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and decontamination work in Fukushima.
In the afternoon, a government-sponsored memorial service was held in Tokyo, attended by Emperor Akihito, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and representatives of people who lost family members, with a moment of silence observed at 2:46 p.m., when the magnitude-9.0 quake occurred four years ago.
At the event, Abe pledged all-out efforts by the government to work out comprehensive disaster prevention measures based on the lessons learned from the 2011 calamity, saying, “We would like to push ahead with creating a country resilient to disasters.”
The emperor said, “It is important for Japanese people to stand together to overcome the still severe conditions for disaster victims.”
Representing people who lost their family members in Miyagi Prefecture, Sayaka Sugawara, 19, said, “I would like to live my life by looking forward so that I can regain what I lost in the disaster.”
In severe cold weather just like four years ago, local people also prayed for the victims.
In Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, a 68-year-old woman cleaned the graves of her mother, her elder brother and his wife, saying, “Someone may come to pray.”
“My sorrow deepens even more after the passage of time,” she said.
In Otsuchi in the prefecture, about 30 city government officials offered silent prayers for tsunami victims in front of the former city hall in which around 40 people including the mayor were killed. Part of the building is expected to be preserved as a disaster memorial.
“I used to talk about our future with my colleagues. Standing now on the front line of reconstruction efforts, I wish they were still alive,” said Mayor Yutaka Ikarigawa.
In Wakabayashi Ward in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, residents prayed in front of a monument bearing 192 victims’ names.
The disaster “seems like a long time ago but it was also like only yesterday,” said Makiko Ito, a 39-year-old company employee mourning the loss of a colleague.
“It is hard recalling the bitter memories of the disaster. But I think today’s drill is important,” said Sachiko Kitamura, 79, who joined one in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.
The temblor was one of the most powerful quakes on record in Japan, and the ensuing tsunami left 15,891 people dead and 2,584 unaccounted for, most in the three prefectures in the Tohoku region, according to the latest tally released by the National Police Agency on Tuesday.
Among the 228,863 people evacuated due to the multiple disasters, 47,219 Fukushima residents remained outside the prefecture as of Feb. 12 after being hit by the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear crisis.
None of the nation’s 48 commercial nuclear reactors is active at the moment. Despite persistent safety concerns among the public, the Abe government is pushing toward bringing some of the reactors back online.
Four reactors — two at a plant in southwestern Japan and two at a plant in western Japan — have obtained safety clearance to restart under tighter regulations introduced after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The government has allocated a total of 26.30 trillion yen ($217 billion) for reconstruction work over the five-year period through March 2016, mainly for infrastructural improvement, including relocating communities to higher ground and building coastal levees.
But the reconstruction of residential areas remains slow due to a shortage of construction workers and higher construction material prices.
The number of people living in prefabricated makeshift housing complexes in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures at the end of February totaled 80,372.
The disasters have also taken a heavy toll on survivors, leaving some vulnerable to ill-health as they continue to live in temporary housing. Since the disasters, 3,244 of them have died due to infirmity, suicide and other causes.