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10 years on, Japan mourns victims of deadly tsunami and Fukushima disaster

Japan on Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit its northeastern region, where many survivors' lives are still on hold.

More than 18,000 people died and nearly half a million people were displaced

People pay silent tribute on Thursday during the 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, in Namie, Fukushima prefecture. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Japan on Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit its northeastern region, where many survivors' lives are still on hold.

Carrying bouquets, many walked to the coast or visited graves to pray for relatives and friends washed away by the tsunami. Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were among those observing a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. — the minute the shaking started — at a memorial in Tokyo.

The magnitude-9.0 quake that struck on March 11, 2011, was one of the biggest on record and set off a massive tsunami that swept far inland, destroying towns and causing meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. More than 18,000 people died, mostly in the tsunami, and nearly half a million people were displaced.

Additionally, the government recognized about 3,700 others — the majority of them from Fukushima — who died of causes linked to the disaster.

Ten years later, more than 40,000 people are still unable to return home in and around Fukushima, where areas near the wrecked plant are still off-limits due to radioactive contamination.

Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were among those observing a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. — the minute the shaking started — at a memorial in Tokyo. (Behrouz Mehri/Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

Naruhito said "my heart aches" when he thinks of those who have struggled with hardships, drastic changes to their lives, and lost their loved ones, jobs and communities. He especially noted the suffering of many Fukushima residents who cannot go back.

"I also consider it important to heal emotional scars and watch over the mental and physical health of those afflicted, including the elderly and children," he said. He stressed that it's important for people to stand by them and help reconstruct their lives "without leaving even a single soul behind in this difficult situation."

A combination photo shows a tsunami-devastated area (top) in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, pictured from a helicopter on March 13, 2011, and a memorial park created in the same area (bottom), pictured from a helicopter on Feb. 12, 2021. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Rebuilding roads, train lines, and other key infrastructure and housing has mostly been completed at the cost of more than $352 billion Cdn, but land remains empty in coastal towns farther north in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, where existing population losses were accelerated by the disaster.

In Otsuchi town in Iwate prefecture, where the tsunami destroyed the town hall, killing about 40 employees, families in dark suits gathered at an empty land where the building used to stand. In Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, dozens of residents prayed at a cenotaph carrying the names of more than 3,000 victims.

A man prays Thursday in front of a monument for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Namie, Fukushima prefecture. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

No deaths have been confirmed directly from the radiation, but Fukushima has fallen behind in the recovery efforts, with 2.4 per cent of land classified as no-go zones near the nuclear plant. The decommissioning of the melted reactors is an unprecedented challenge, with some questioning after 10 years of work whether it can be done at all.

Thursday's ceremony is the last national commemoration for the 2011 disaster organized by the government. It comes just two weeks before the Olympic torch run begins from Fukushima for the delayed Tokyo Summer Games in July.

Suga has said the Olympics will showcase Japan's recovery from the disaster and will be proof of human victory over the coronavirus pandemic. Some disaster survivors, however, say their job is still only half done.

With files from Reuters

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