SENDAI/MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – As the sun rose Friday on areas of northeastern Japan still struggling from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit on March 11, 2011, people gathered to remember their lost loved ones and reflect on their grief five years after the disaster.
The magnitude-9 quake, ensuing tsunami and aftermath left 19,304 people dead and 2,561 missing and presumed dead, according to the National Police Agency’s latest figures as of Thursday.
In the Arahama area of Sendai, concrete slabs are all that remain of the homes that once stood along the seaside.
Among those laying flowers at a cenotaph in Arahama was Toshihiko Daigaku, 61, who lost his wife, parents, elder brother and a nephew to the tsunami.
“I’m still getting by thanks to my ties with other people and the children,” Daigaku said, having prayed for his lost relatives’ souls to be at rest.
Not far up the coast in the city of Higashimatsushima, 43-year-old Yukie Sawaguchi made a promise to her late elder sister: “I’ll live on your behalf.”
Visiting the grave shared by her sister and three other relatives before heading to her job as a nursing care worker, Sawaguchi said she still regrets not calling the family before the tsunami arrived and telling them to flee.
“My feelings of regret and frustration have grown stronger with the passing of time,” she said.
The tsunami took more than 600 lives in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, where people were subsequently ordered to evacuate in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s No. 1 plant.
About 20 elderly evacuees still living in temporary housing offered silent prayers Friday as they stood at a spot overlooking the sea.
Ayako Matsumoto, 71, came to the site to tell her four relatives lost in the disaster not to worry about her.
“Five years might seem like a long time, but it’s gone by in an instant,” Matsumoto said.
Sirens rang out at 6 a.m. in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, where March 11 each year is marked by an evacuation drill to keep residents conscious of the potential for another disaster. More than 100 people hastened to a local school gymnasium designated as an evacuation center.
Having received a blanket for warmth in the gym, Koko Furudate, 68, remembered the bracing cold of five years ago.
“At that time we had no heating and had to huddle against each other to keep warm,” she said.
People gathered at the steel frame of a local government building in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, to remember the 43 people who lost their lives there.
“Although I know I have to accept reality, these five years have been tough,” 64-year-old Ryuji Kawahara, from Yokohama, said through tears at the site. The body of his cousin, who worked at the office, has never been found.
On land and at sea, police teams continued to search Friday for the remains of thousands of missing people.
In the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, a line of 60 police officers and volunteers carefully picked through the ground with hoes, wrapping up their search of an area around a river mouth.
“It’s disappointing that we haven’t found anything linked to missing victims here, but none of us will forget the disaster,” local police chief Junichi Itabashi said.
Ahead of another day of radioactive decontamination work in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, where residents are still not allowed to return to their homes, roughly 700 workers observed a moment of silence.
“We’re doing all we can so evacuees can come back, but we still don’t know when that day will come,” a 59-year-old worker said.