Emperor leads tributes to 19,000 people killed after earthquake, and PM says reconstruction is making steady progress
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Japan’s emperor has led tributes to the 19,000 people who died five years ago when a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the country’s north-east coast and triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Across the devastated region, people observed a moment’s silence at 2.46pm on Friday, the exact moment in 2011 when a magnitude-9 earthquake – the biggest in Japan’s recorded history – unleashed a tsunami that engulfed entire towns and villages.
Temple bells rang out in Tokyo, and all trains on the city’s underground network came to a halt.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, joined survivors in the capital to remember the dead and encourage survivors as they continue to rebuild their shattered communities.
“Many of the people affected by the disaster are ageing, and I worry that some of them may be suffering alone in places where our eyes and attention don’t reach,” the emperor told an audience of 1,200 people.
“It is important that all the people keep their hearts together so that not a single person still in difficulty is overlooked and they can return to normal life as soon as possible.”
Abe acknowledged that many people were still struggling, but he said: “Reconstruction is steadily making progress, step by step, with housing being rebuilt and jobs regained.”
He added: “Many people are still leading uncomfortable lives in the affected areas. There are many who cannot return to their beloved homes because of the accident at the nuclear power plant.
“We commit ourselves to providing care for their minds and bodies, forming new local communities and supporting industrial development of the affected areas.”
After Fukushima: faces from Japan’s tsunami tragedy, five years on.
Masakiyo Kimura, whose parents were killed in the coastal town of Onagawa, said at the ceremony: “Father, that day, I called your mobile phone so many times, but you didn’t answer.
“Our house was completely torn from its foundation. Nothing remained except for the pair of matching teacups my father and mother used, lying on top of each other.”
Millions of tonnes of tsunami debris have been cleared to make way for new developments, but for many survivors life has barely moved on. More than 180,000 people from the three worst-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima are still displaced, a third of them living in tiny prefabricated units that were supposed to have been vacated two years after the disaster.
In Fukushima, where the meltdown sparked huge radiation leaks in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, more than 100,000 people are still unable to return home.
From early morning on Friday, small groups of survivors gathered to pay tribute to dead family members, friends and colleagues. Some held hands and shed tears as they bowed their heads and remembered the victims of Japan’s worst disaster since the second world war.
Many families are still waiting for the chance to properly mourn, as police and coastguard divers recently resumed the search for more than 2,500 people still listed as missing.
People gather in front of the skeletal remains of the disaster prevention centre in Minamisanriku.
In the town of Minamisanriku, people gathered near the gutted frame of a former disaster prevention centre where 43 people died. “Although I know I have to accept reality, these five years have been tough,” Ryuji Kawahara, whose cousin’s body has never been found, told Kyodo News.
Five years after Japan’s tsunami, orphan victims lament their lost parents.
The pain of bereavement was evident among residents in Rikuzentakata, where the tsunami killed more than 1,700 people and flattened the coastal district. “The reality is that we still feel the scars here, and there are still many struggling to restart their lives,” said Yashichi Yanashita, a retired civil servant.
The slow pace of recovery throughout the region is taking a physical toll on the many elderly people who live in temporary housing. According to local authorities, by September last year 3,410 people had died from illnesses and in suicides linked to the triple disaster.
Nuclear evacuees who have relocated to Tokyo said they feared their plight was being forgotten. “I hope people will remember us, that lives of evacuees are still difficult in many ways, including financially,” Kazuko Nihei said at a memorial service in the city.
Abe pledged to speed up the reconstruction effort in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, after his cabinet approved a new 6.5 trillion yen (£40bn), five-year reconstruction plan that will priorities public housing, medical care, infrastructure and tourism.
So far, local governments say only about half of 29,000 planned public housing units for evacuees have been built.
A girl and her grandmother place flowers in the sea in Sendai
A girl and her grandmother place flowers in the sea in Sendai. Photograph: Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images
In Fukushima, 40 communities have yet to be decontaminated, casting doubt on a government pledge to lift evacuation orders by next March in all of the affected towns and villages apart those closest to the stricken power plant.
While most Japanese remain opposed to the restart of reactors closed in the wake of the meltdown as part of a new safety regime, the Abe administration is pushing for a bigger role for nuclear energy.
The government said last year it would aim for nuclear to account for about 20% of the country’s energy mix by 2020.
On the eve of the anniversary, Abe insisted Japan must embrace nuclear power to honour its climate change commitments and lessen its dependence on expensive fossil fuel imports.
“Our resource-poor country cannot do without nuclear power to secure the stability of energy supply, while considering what makes economic sense and the issue of climate change,” he said.
His comments came a day after a Japanese court ordered the shutdown of two nuclear reactors that had been declared safe to go back online.