• Kyodo


Japan marked the ninth anniversary Wednesday of the massive earthquake and tsunami that rocked the Tohoku region and killed more than 15,000 people in 2011, as health fears over the spread of COVID-19 prompted the cancellation or scaling down of a number of events.

A state-sponsored memorial ceremony that had been held every year in Tokyo since 2012 was canceled for the first time ever, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying he would instead observe a moment of silence and deliver an address from his official residence.

Many municipalities in the hardest-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi canceled or postponed their ceremonies, but still set up altars where people could offer flowers. Other areas have drastically downsized events.

The quake-triggered tsunami on March 11, 2011, engulfed the six-reactor Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, sparking the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the deadly 1986 Chernobyl crisis.

Fukiko Takahashi, 77, from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, put her hands together as she gazed over the city from Mount Hiyori, toward the ocean. “Many people I knew died. Nine years have passed but it’s still painful now,” she said.

Residential areas in parts of the city were swept away by the tsunami. Although four public housing facilities stand on the elevated site, much of the land remains empty.

In Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, around 360 yellow handkerchiefs flap in the wind, decorated with messages of hope for revitalization penned by residents. “It is a day we must not forget. May this re-etch the memory in people’s hearts,” said Junichiro Kano, 69, a former teacher who planned the idea.

As concerns over the new virus continue to grow, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics organizing committee is also considering scaling down the Japanese leg of its torch relay, set to begin on March 26 from the J-Village soccer training center located about 20 kilometers from the nuclear plant.

Futaba, the last town that had been off-limits due to radiation since the nuclear disaster, had its entry ban partially lifted for the first time last week, with the government keen to show off the northeast’s recovery ahead of the relay passing through the region.

But with the ban lifted in only some parts of the town, residents will not be allowed to return until sometime after the spring of 2020. In Okuma and Tomioka, where evacuation orders issued after the meltdowns were lifted earlier as decontamination work progressed, over 90 percent of residents have not returned.

But over 90 percent of public housing in the three prefectures has already been completed, and East Japan Railway Co.’s Joban Line will reopen fully Saturday for the first time since the triple disaster.

The number of evacuees still living in prefabricated makeshift housing in the three prefectures stood at 740 at the end of January. While the number of displaced people has dropped from its peak of 470,000, nearly 48,000 have yet to return to their hometowns since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the region.

Many have also chosen not to return, with the population of 90 percent of the 42 disaster-hit municipalities lower than before the disasters. A 44-year-old former resident of Okuma, who chose not to return, now livesin temporary housing in Iwaki, after a new home she built around five years ago in the northeastern Japan city was flooded by Typhoon Hagibis last October.

“I’m grateful just to be alive, but I want to go back to my normal life as soon as possible,” she said.

As of March 1, the disasters had caused the deaths of 15,899 people and left 2,529 unaccounted for, mostly in the three hardest-hit prefectures, according to the National Police Agency. Nearly a quarter of those who died of illnesses or stress linked to the disasters in those prefectures were people with disabilities, a recent Kyodo News survey showed.

Another Kyodo survey found that at least 242 residents of public housing in the three prefectures had died alone, revealing the need to develop networks that support elderly residents and prevent them from isolating themselves.

Among those age 65 and above in public housing, about 30 percent live alone.

Last week, the government approved a bill that will extend the life of the Reconstruction Agency, established to oversee rebuilding efforts, until 2031 — a decade longer than was initially planned.

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