TOKYO: Japan fell quiet at 2.46pm on Thursday to mark the minute that an earthquake began 10 years ago, setting off a tsunami and nuclear crisis that devastated the country’s northeast coast in a disaster that one survivor said he fears people are beginning to forget.
Carrying bouquets of flowers, many walked to the seaside or visited graves to pray for relatives and friends washed away by the water. Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were among those observing a moment of silence at a memorial in Tokyo. Dignitaries and representatives of the survivors spoke but most watched the ceremony online or on television because of restrictions to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
The magnitude-9.0 quake that struck on March 11, 2011 one of the biggest on record triggered a wall of water that swept far inland, destroying towns and causing meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The days following the quake were terrifying for many in Japan and farther afield, as hydrogen explosions released radiation into the air and technicians worked furiously to try to cool the plants nuclear fuel by pumping in seawater. There were concerns and confusion about the extent of meltdowns, and how far radiation might travel, including fears that Tokyo and even the US west coast were at risk. Officials said they were not, but panicked shoppers as far away as China and Russia scrambled to stock up on goods they thought would protect them.
More than 18,000 people died, mostly in the tsunami, and nearly half a million people were displaced. The government recognizes another 3,700 mostly from Fukushima prefecture who died of causes linked to the disaster, such as stress.
Ten years on, more than 40,000 people are still unable to return home, and areas near the wrecked plant are still off-limits due to contamination from the initial radiation fallout. Many in Japan have said that the country’s intense focus on physically rebuilding has at times ignored other healing that needed to be done.
Reconstruction in disaster-hit areas has moved forward significantly, but recovery of the survivors’ hearts is not making as much progress as we wish,” Makoto Saito, a teacher at an elementary school in Minamisoma who lost his 5-year-old son Shota in the tsunami, said in a speech at the Tokyo ceremony.
The government has said this is the last year it will organise a national commemoration for the disaster.