Asia Editor's Picks Latest Top Stories World

Japan pays homage to victims of 2011 tsunami, nuclear disaster

TOKYO, Japan: Japan has paid tribute to the victims of a powerful earthquake and tsunami that struck the country 10 years ago, destroying entire towns and triggering the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. At least 20,000 people were killed in the earthquake and nuclear disaster.

People, some carrying bouquets, walked on Thursday to the coast or graves to pray for relatives and friends who died in the triple disaster, while a minute’s silence was held nationwide at 2:46 pm local time (05:46 GMT) – the precise moment the 9.0 magnitude quake hit off Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011.

The tremor triggered a huge tsunami that swept far inland, causing meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and forcing more than 160,000 residents to flee as radiation spewed into the air.

Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga joined a memorial for the dead at a ceremony in the Japanese capital, Tokyo, where the monarch said the “unforgettable memory of the tragedy” persisted a decade on.

“Many of those afflicted, in spite of their having suffered from unimaginably enormous damage, have overcome numerous hardships by helping one another,” he added.

The annual memorial event was held before a smaller audience than usual, with the capital and nearby areas currently under a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suga, the prime minister, said the challenges faced by survivors had been compounded by the pandemic and natural disasters, including a recent strong quake in the region, classified as an aftershock of the 2011 tremor.

But he said Japan had always “overcome every crisis with courage and hope”.

In the hard-hit Tohoku region, the disaster has left survivors struggling to overcome the grief of losing families and whole communities to the 15-metre (49-foot) high wave. In the town of Hisanohama, 78-year-old Toshio Kumaki walked to the giant sea wall built after the tsunami at sun break and offered a prayer to those who died.

About 60 people were killed in one of the districts next to the beach, when the tsunami washed ashore, wiping away everything but a tiny shrine.

Kumaki’s eyes filled with tears as he remembered the disaster. “It was really scary,” he said.

The government has spent about $300bn to rebuild the tsunami-devastated region, but areas around the Fukushima plant remain off-limits, worries about radiation levels linger and many who left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning of the crippled plant will take decades and billions of dollars.

About 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of the Fukushima plant, in the gritty coastal city of Iwaki which has since become a hub for nuclear-decommissioning workers, restaurant owner Atsushi Niizuma prayed to his mother killed in the tsunami.

“I want to tell my mother that my children, who were all close to her, are doing well. I came here to thank her that our family is living safely,” the 47-year-old told the news agencies.

On the day of the disaster, Niizuma’s mother, Mitsuko, was looking after his children. The children rushed into a car. Mitsuko, 65, was swept away by the waves as she returned to the house to grab her belongings. It took a month to recover her body.

Thursday’s ceremony will be the last national commemoration for the 2011 disaster organised by the government. It comes just two weeks before the Olympic torch run begins from Fukushima ahead of 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 against the coronavirus pandemic.

In her message of condolences, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said the power of sport had become a focus of Tokyo’s bid for the Games after the 2011 disaster and that the concept could be extended to facing the coronavirus pandemic.

“While COVID-19 has led to the first-ever and unprecedented postponement of the Games, the role of sports within society has become ever more relevant,” Hashimoto said. “Even stronger determination” was needed to help boost the recovery of the areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami, she said.

“While doing so, we would like to do our best to bring together those whose lives have been affected by the global crisis through hosting a safe and secure Tokyo 2020 Games,” she said, referring to the coronavirus.