Japan paused on Friday to mark five years since an offshore earthquake spawned a monster tsunami that left about 18,500 people dead or missing along its northeastern coast and sparked the worst nuclear disaster in a quarter century.
Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other participants at a national ceremony in Tokyo bowed their heads as did many residents across the affected region at 2:46pm (0546 GMT) -- the exact moment on March 11, 2011 the magnitude 9.0 quake struck under the Pacific Ocean.
The massive earthquake unleashed a giant wall of water that swallowed schools and entire neighbourhoods, with unforgettable images spreading around the world of panicked residents fleeing to higher ground and vehicles and ships bobbing in swirling waters of flooded towns.
The waves also swamped power supplies at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, causing reactor meltdowns that released radiation in the most dangerous nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 and which continues to leave some areas uninhabitable.
“I hope people will remember us, that lives of evacuees are still difficult in many ways, including financially,” Kazuko Nihei, 39, said at a memorial event in a Tokyo park.
“This event is for recalling the disaster and cooperation among us,” said Nihei, who evacuated to Tokyo from Fukushima with her two daughters and now leads self-help group for mothers from the region.
The situation remains volatile in Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear plant suffered explosions that spread radioactive material into the surrounding countryside and ocean.
The nuclear crisis forced thousands of residents to flee their homes, farms and fishing boats and at one point even led to discussions about possibly evacuating the capital area and its 30 million people.
Since then, authorities have brought the reactors to a state of “cold shutdown” and dispatched work crews to cleanse affected houses, sweep streets and shave topsoil in “decontamination” efforts.
Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the shuttered plant, admits it has only made small steps in what is likely to be a four-decade battle to decommission the crippled reactors.
Despite growing public opposition to nuclear power as a result of the disaster, the government has pushed to restart idled reactors, saying they are essential to power the world’s third largest economy.
Japan’s stable of reactors was shuttered in the aftermath of the disaster but Abe and utility companies have been pushing to get reactors back in operation despite opposition and legal hurdles.
Only this week, a court ordered the shutdown of two nuclear reactors previously declared safe, demonstrating the ongoing battles over Japan’s energy policy.
The disaster had forced resource-poor Japan to turn to expensive fossil fuels to plug the energy gap left by the shutdowns.
Speaking on the eve of the anniversary, Abe told the nation that it “cannot do without” nuclear power, though vowed to reduce dependence on it.
Abe, along with other political and business leaders, has frequently visited the disaster-struck region and pledged to help rebuild the area and lives of local people.
Expensive infrastructure, including giant seawalls, are being constructed and many local businesses have managed to rebuild -- including factories in the region crucial to auto industry supply chains that suffered major disruptions.
But many young families have moved away, accelerating its depopulation amid the broader greying of society, while those who have evacuated but want to return wonder if they ever can.
“For each and every one of the people whose lives were affected by the disaster, these five years must have been days of hardship and pain,” Abe said on Thursday.