Japan on Wednesday commemorated the fourth anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami with prayers for the more than 18,000 people who died or who remain missing following the disaster, which devastated much of the Tohoku region.
The anniversary comes at a time when post-quake reconstruction in hard-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures remains incomplete, with many evacuees still forced to live away from their hometowns amid decommissioning work at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and decontamination work across Fukushima Prefecture.
A government-sponsored memorial service held in Tokyo was attended by Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as representatives of people who lost family members. A moment of silence was observed at 2:46 p.m., the moment that the magnitude-9 quake struck four years ago.
“To make the most of the precious lessons learned from the earthquake and tsunami, I will push forward the effort to build an enduring nation that can stand firmly against disasters,” Abe said at the memorial service.
The Emperor also expressed compassion for those affected by the disaster, noting that “the situation surrounding affected people still remains difficult, and I think citizens’ continuous efforts to help each other and unite as one is important.”
A total of 30 relatives of the deceased from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures participated in the memorial, with representatives from each prefecture taking turns to speak about the four years since the disaster.
Michio Uchidate, a 38-year-old man from Iwate who lost his father in the massive quake, said he sometimes has difficulty moving forward and feels as if he is fighting a battle against time and fading memories of the disaster. Still, he said, he was determined not to let them be forgotten.
“In my daily life, warm memories of my father unexpectedly surround me. But soon after that, the grief fills my mind as I remember encountering his dead body and recall scenes of gigantic tsunami waves, cold mud and uncountable debris left behind,” he said.
“Along with reconstruction of tangible objects, we turned grief into grace, remorse into tolerance, and regret . . . into the spirit of mutual cooperation among the survivors,” he added.
Sayaka Sugawara, who was born and raised in the devastated city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, said she was 15 when she lost her mother in the earthquake. Now, at 19, she feels as if the events of four years ago were merely a dream.
Sugawara spoke of losing her mother in the giant waves.
“I heard someone calling my name from below (my home),” she said. “Then I found my mother, whose contorted body was trapped amid debris, with wood and nails stuck in it and both her legs broken,” she said. “Her right leg was stuck in the debris, so I tried to help her pull it out, but her body was too big for me to do so.
“I wanted to help her, but I would be swept away and die. . . . I thanked my mother and told her I loved her as she begged me not to leave her.”
Sugawara survived by swimming to an elementary school that was being used as an evacuation center, where she spent the night.
“What we lost in the disaster will never come back, and neither will the sorrow of the affected go away,” Sugawara said.
Yukie Suzuki, 32, from the Fukushima Prefecture town of Namie — once designated as a no-go zone after the outbreak of the nuclear crisis at the nearby No. 1 plant — lost her father, mother and a little brother in the disaster.
Suzuki said the current situation in the disaster-hit areas has left her both distressed and uncertain about the future.
“We still face a mountain of issues, including radiation, the rebuilding of permanent housing, and the restoration of agricultural lands,” she said. “But we promise once again to work together step-by-step, undaunted in our reconstruction efforts.”
The temblor was one of the most powerful on record in Japan, and the ensuing tsunami left 15,891 people dead and 2,584 missing, 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 triple disaster, 47,219 Fukushima residents remained outside the prefecture as of Feb. 12, after being affected by the world’s worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
None of the nation’s 48 commercial nuclear reactors are active at the moment. But despite lingering safety concerns among the public, the Abe government is pushing to bring some of the reactors back online.
Four of these 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 triple meltdown in Fukushima.
The government has allocated a total of ¥26.3 trillion ($217 billion) for reconstruction work over the five-year period through March 2016, mainly for infrastructure improvements that include relocating low-lying coastal communities to higher ground and increasing the height of seawalls.
But the reconstruction of residential areas remains slow due to a shortage of construction workers, and higher prices for essential construction materials.
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 disaster has also taken a heavy toll on survivors, leaving some vulnerable to ill-health as they continue to live in temporary housing. Since the disaster, 3,244 people have died due to infirmity, suicide and other causes.