At 2:46 p.m. on Sunday, Japan observed a moment of silence to mark the seventh anniversary of the mega-quake and tsunami that left about 18,000 people dead or missing while triggering the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The anniversary of the calamity on March 11, 2011, arrived as about 73,000 people from the disaster-hit areas have yet to return to their hometowns.
They include about 34,000 people from Fukushima Prefecture, who have no choice but to live outside the prefecture due to the radioactive contamination caused by the three reactor core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power station.
The death toll from the magnitude 9 Great East Japan Earthquake, subsequent tsunami and prolonged aftershocks had reached 15,895 as of Friday, the National Police Agency said, adding that 2,539 officially remain unaccounted for.
As of Feb. 13, over 53,000 of the 73,000 evacuees were living in government-funded temporary housing or public or private rental housing across the country, while nearly 20,000 were living with relatives or acquaintances, according to the Reconstruction Agency. The remaining 271 are hospital patients.
On Sunday a Tokyo memorial ceremony organized by the government was attended by Prince Akishino and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with representatives of the survivors in the hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, and other guests.
“Is it already seven years? Or, is it only seven years? I don’t know. Even though I think about it often, there are no answers in my heart,” Hideko Igarashi, a 70-year-old survivor from Fukushima Prefecture, said in her speech at the ceremony.
“We should not forget what we have learned from the disaster,” the woman from Soma said. “I sincerely pray for the peace and comfort of the victims and offer my most profound condolences.”
Abe said he believes the reconstruction projects in the Tohoku region are steadily making progress.
“More than 70,000 people are still living as evacuees, and many people continue to endure troubled uncomfortable lives seven years later,” Abe said. “When I think of the despair of those who lost beloved members of their families and friends in the disaster, I am overwhelmed even now with deep sorrow.”
“In areas that were affected by the earthquake and tsunami, the restoration of infrastructure closely related to everyday life is nearly complete, while 90 percent of the new homes required after the disaster are expected to be completed by this spring,” he added. Many of the tsunami-hit areas have been cleared of debris, and some areas are preparing raised areas for new homes to mitigate the risk of future tsunami damage. But despite the progress in these large, long-term construction projects, many evacuees have run out of patience and given up any hope of returning to their hometowns, opting to settle inland.
Abe also noted that evacuation orders are gradually being lifted in areas tainted by the triple core meltdown triggered by the tsunami-linked blackout at Fukushima No. 1, which is managed by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings.
Reconstruction Minister Masayoshi Yoshino said during a press briefing Wednesday in Tokyo that more than 80 percent of the farmland in the area is available for planting again, and that over 90 percent of the fish-processing facilities affected have reopened. While echoing Abe’s remarks about steady progress, Prince Akishino expressed his feelings about those still struggling under difficult conditions.
“The government, local authorities nationwide and large numbers of people, both in Japan and abroad, have offered support in many ways,” he said.
“As a result, we have made progress in various areas such as construction and relocation of housing to higher ground, the resumption of industrial operations, improvement in living conditions, and the provision of new disaster prevention facilities,” the prince said.
“It is important that the hearts of the people remain with the afflicted for many years to come in order to ensure that each and every one of those who are in difficult situations will not be left behind and will be able to live in peace and good health, and that reconstruction will continue to make steady progress,” he said.