Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that Japan is approaching the “final stages” of its effort to rebuild areas devastated by a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in 2011, as the nation marked the eighth anniversary of the biggest disaster in its postwar history — which left more than 20,000 dead or unaccounted for.
A moment of silence was observed nationwide at 2:46 p.m., the fateful minute when the Great East Japan Earthquake jolted many parts of Japan and subsequently triggered a killer tsunami that engulfed large swaths of the Tohoku region, including the three hardest-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima.
Eight years on, Abe was confident like never before in the steadfast manner in which reconstruction is taking place. Whereas he previously said reconstruction was proceeding “step by step,” this year he ditched the language of a gradual recovery and instead adopted a more definite tone.
That decision was notable given that a recent opinion poll showed nearly half of respondents nationwide saw little or no progress in the reconstruction.
Speaking at a state-organized memorial ceremony in Tokyo, Abe said efforts to rebuild the affected regions are “making visible progress,” before declaring: “In areas that were affected by the earthquake and tsunami, the reconstruction is advancing toward its final stages.”
The death toll from the magnitude 9 quake and ensuing tsunami — plus numerous aftershocks in the months following — hit 15,897 as of Friday, including 9,542 in Miyagi, 4,674 in Iwate and 1,614 in Fukushima, according to National Police Agency statistics.
That figure would be higher if combined with deaths triggered by stress and illness stemming from the disaster, which the Reconstruction Agency put at 3,701 as of December.
Separately, the latest NPA statistics also show that 2,533 people are still unaccounted for, which is also likely to boost the final death toll.
Despite signs of recovery, about 52,000 people remained displaced nationwide as of February, including those consigned to prefabricated temporary housing, hospitals and dwellings of relatives and friends, according to statistics compiled by the Reconstruction Agency. Residents in Fukushima, where the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant took place — the world’s worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine — are one of the most affected, with 9,322 still unable to return home.
At the ceremony, Abe acknowledged the plight of those forced to endure “uncomfortable” lives for an extended period of time.
But at the same time, he touted moves toward “full-scale reconstruction” — a phrase absent from last year’s speech — in Fukushima, citing the lifting of evacuation orders in almost all areas except for neighborhoods designated as “difficult to return home” due to exposure to high-level radiation from the plant.
Morihisa Kanoya, a disaster survivor who spoke at the ceremony as a representative of Fukushima Prefecture, said “many challenges” need to be overcome to fully reconstruct his hometown, Namie, which is located close to the plant.
Those include “repairing the damage caused by the earthquakes and the tsunami, as well as solving issues surrounding residents who were evacuated from their homes and the problem of radiation,” he said.
Masaaki Konno, a survivor from Miyagi, said memories of the grotesque aftermath of the disaster — including the “smell of countless rotting fish that had been cast ashore” — remain etched in his mind.
Konno, who lost his mother to the tsunami, said there remains a “gaping hole” in his soul because of “the feeling of powerlessness, and the sadness, agony and despair of not being able to find her.”
Also present at the nationally televised memorial service in Tokyo was Prince Akishino, who, like Abe, hailed “steady” and “extensive” advances in the process of recovery from tsunami and nuclear disasters.
The prince elaborated on the heartache he said he feels at the thought of many of those still unable to return home due to the high concentration of radiation in Fukushima, the resulting depopulation of children and “the reputational damage caused by misinformation that has stubbornly lingered in such sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries.”
Official figures point to the dismal recovery of fishery businesses in Fukushima. When contacted by The Japan Times, the prefecture put a preliminary estimate of the fish catch amount in 2018 at 4,010 tons, which, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, is a sixth of the pre-disaster level of about 25,000 tons in 2010.
A ccording to a Jiji Press poll conducted in February on 2,000 people aged 18 or over nationwide, 2.2 percent said they see much progress in the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas, and 42.8 percent believe progress has been made to a certain extent.
On the other hand, 3.8 percent saw no progress at all and 43.8 percent claimed that they do not see much progress.
The survey showed that 74.8 percent see little or no progress in the reconstruction of areas damaged by the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
“It is important that we all continue to unite our hearts to be with the afflicted for many years to come, to ensure that none of those who are in difficult situations will be left behind, and that each and every one of them will be able to regain peace in their daily lives as soon as possible,” Prince Akishino said.