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Tears, prayers and resolve to pass on lessons learned swept Japan on Thursday as the country marked 10 years since a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated its northeastern coast, with services to mourn the more than 15,000 lives lost held in the hardest-hit areas and Tokyo.

Residents in the severely affected prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi observed a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m., exactly a decade after the huge quake shook eastern and northeastern Japan, triggering a tsunami and the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl crisis.

Places for people to lay flowers were set up from the morning at various venues in the region, while some residents stood near the sea and other sites to clasp their hands together in prayer.

In Miyagi’s Ishinomaki, where over 3,000 died in the disaster — more than in any other municipality — a memorial service was held from 2:40 p.m. at the Maruhon Makiato Terrace ahead of its official opening in April. The cultural complex, which was completed this year, has become a symbol of reconstruction for the city.

The 'Miracle Pine,' a lone tree that survived in a coastal forest flattened by the deadly tsunami 10 years ago, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on Thursday | KYODO
The ‘Miracle Pine,’ a lone tree that survived in a coastal forest flattened by the deadly tsunami 10 years ago, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on Thursday | KYODO

“A lot of precious lives were lost that day, and that can never be forgotten,” said Rie Sato, who represented the bereaved families at the ceremony.

“But I have also learned the warmness of people,” said Sato, 44, who lost her younger sister Ikumi to the tsunami.

Other locals took a moment from their daily schedules to remember loved ones at a cenotaph in Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park, unveiled the same day.

“Even though 10 years have passed, the wounds in the heart remain,” an 81-year-old man reflected as he rubbed his grandson’s nameplate on the monument.

Flowers were set up near Kashimamiko Shrine on Mount Hiyori, which had served as an evacuation spot on the day of the tsunami.

A woman places flowers to mourn the victims of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disaster on its 10th anniversary Thursday in the city of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS
A woman places flowers to mourn the victims of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disaster on its 10th anniversary Thursday in the city of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. | REUTERS

A 65-year-old woman and her husband, 76, gazed over the park toward the ocean on Thursday morning. “Even if reconstruction is progressing, it feels empty inside. There’s no one around,” she said.

The couple’s house escaped destruction by the tsunami as it was built on high ground, but she says her sister-in-law’s family were not as lucky — out of their family of seven, only two people were saved.

In neighboring Higashimatsushima, also among the cities badly hit, Kojun Akiyama, a monk at a Buddhist temple, remembered his older brother Seido, who died in the tsunami at age 49. The temple where he served as a priest was swept away by the tsunami. Akiyama took it over and rebuilt it two years ago.

“We all are living, carrying the sadness in our hearts,” Akiyama, 53, said.

Many municipalities in these prefectures went ahead with ceremonies after canceling or scaling back last year due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Students in the town of Hirono, Fukushima Prefecture, observe a minute of silence at 2:46 p.m. Thursday, exactly ten years after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit northeastern Japan. They held a ribbon to maintain their distance amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. | KYODO
Students in the town of Hirono, Fukushima Prefecture, observe a minute of silence at 2:46 p.m. Thursday, exactly ten years after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit northeastern Japan. They held a ribbon to maintain their distance amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. | KYODO

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami left 15,900 people dead and 2,525 missing, according to the latest figures from the National Police Agency and local police in the disaster-hit areas.

On Thursday, local police in the disaster-hit region conducted one of their regular searches of coastal areas in Fukushima and Iwate for any sign of remains of those swept away by the tsunami.

Local police officers also searched a beach in an area where about 70,000 pine trees were felled by the tsunami. The area is situated in the city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, where more than 1,700 people died, both in the actual incident and after, from issues related to the disasters including illness.

At a downsized state-sponsored ceremony at the National Theater in Tokyo, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and guests observed a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m.

“The task of reconstruction is now entering its final phases in these (disaster-hit) regions,” with homes reconstructed and towns revived to a great extent, Suga said in the ceremony that was also attended by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako.

More than ¥30 trillion has been spent on reconstruction projects over the past decade. The government last year approved a bill to extend the life of the Reconstruction Agency, established to oversee rebuilding efforts, until 2031 — a decade longer than had initially been planned.

A man visits the remains of a town office damaged by the earthquake and tsunami disaster on March 11, 2011, in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Thursday. | KYODO
A man visits the remains of a town office damaged by the earthquake and tsunami disaster on March 11, 2011, in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Thursday. | KYODO

Still, Suga said, 2,000 people remain living in temporary housing and the disaster-hit areas “still need to address issues such as psychological care.”

“Moreover these areas have been struck by various hardships, including (a typhoon) two years ago, the novel coronavirus disease since last year, and recently a large earthquake,” he added.

He pledged the government’s “continuous and seamless support” to ensure people’s lives are restored and to speed up the return of citizens to homes in areas affected by the Fukushima accident.

Appearing at the Tokyo ceremony on behalf of bereaved residents of Fukushima Prefecture, Makoto Saito, 50, said that while he acknowledges reconstruction has progressed considerably, the “recovery of the hearts of the bereaved families have not progressed the way they would want due to overwhelming sadness.”

Saito does not want his 5-year-old son Shota’s death to be in vain, and vowed to ensure the memory of the disaster will not fade, nor the lessons learned.

“I work at an elementary school and through my workplace, I want to tell children what I experienced and teach them the preciousness of life,” he said.

Emperor Naruhito, who has visited the disaster-hit areas, said in his address that his heart aches for the victims. He urged the nation to unite and stand by those who have suffered, to “help all of them regain their peaceful daily lives” quickly and “without leaving even a single soul behind in this difficult situation.”

The ceremony was canceled last year due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and with Tokyo currently under an extended state of emergency the public was not allowed to offer flowers at the venue as part of measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

A woman offers flowers at a memorial cenotaph in Sendai on Thursday, the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. | KYODO
A woman offers flowers at a memorial cenotaph in Sendai on Thursday, the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. | KYODO

The government has also said the event will be the last in its current incarnation, with future memorial events depending on the situation at the time.

Evacuation orders, issued after tsunami waves hit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and caused the release of a massive amount of radioactive material, have already been lifted in many parts of the prefecture as decontamination work has progressed.

The no-go zone now covers approximately 337 square kilometers, 30% of its maximum extent but still equivalent to more than half the area covered by central Tokyo’s 23 wards.

While the number of displaced people has dropped from a peak of 470,000, around 41,000 have yet to return to their hometowns since the magnitude 9.0 quake struck the region.

A decadeslong process to scrap the crippled plant continues, with operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. saying earlier this month it had completed removal of all nuclear fuel rods from the storage pool of the No. 3 reactor building at the complex.

The crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is seen from Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, on Thursday. | KYODO
The crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is seen from Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, on Thursday. | KYODO

The No. 3 unit was one of the three reactors that suffered core meltdowns following the earthquake and tsunami. Japan decided in December 2019 to delay the removal of spent fuel from the storage pools of the other two reactors by as much as five years, to March 2029.

Suga has indicated the government will soon decide how to dispose of treated radioactive water stored in tanks at the crippled power plant, especially with space expected to run out by the fall of 2022.

The decommissioning of the crippled facility remains uncertain, with doubts over whether Tepco will be able to stick to the time frame in the face of numerous technical challenges.

Click to enlarge | JAPAN TIMES INFOGRAPHIC
Click to enlarge | JAPAN TIMES INFOGRAPHIC
Click to enlarge | JAPAN TIMES INFOGRAPHIC
Click to enlarge | JAPAN TIMES INFOGRAPHIC

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