Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan set foot for the first time in the tsunami-ravaged disaster zone Saturday, promising support "to the end" for victims of the unprecedented disaster.
Kan, who flew into Rikuzentakata on a military helicopter from Tokyo, was also due to stop in nearby Fukushima prefecture, in a show of support for emergency crews risking their lives to prevent meltdown at a nuclear plant.
In Rikuzentakata, a town where more than 2,000 are listed as dead or missing after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Kan met with the mayor, volunteer emergency workers and evacuees holed up in makeshift shelters.
"A person who had a house along the coastline asked 'where could I build a house in the future?'" Kan told reporters after visiting a shelter.
"I said the government will do its best to support you until the end," he said.
In Rikuzentakata, a close-knit community with a population of 24,466 prior to the disaster, 1,049 people are confirmed dead and 1,253 are still missing as rescue work enters its fourth week.
Large parts of the city lie in ruins, with only the shells of a few concrete buildings left standing.
The town saw its picturesque forest and golden beaches destroyed by the deadly 9.0-magnitude earthquake and following tsunami, with thousands of local residents still living in evacuation centres.
"The government wants to consider how we can help rebuild such things as scallop and oyster farming, and the mayor told us about the need to bring the fisheries sector back to life," Kan said.
Local residents who had spent weeks in local shelters said their immediate needs were being met, but voiced fears for their future.
"I hope that the central government will exercise strong leadership to rebuild our town and jobs," said Michie Sugawara, 44, who lost her home.
"There will be a long road ahead. This is an unprecedented disaster. I hope that he will not forget about us and I ask for medium to long-term assistance," she told AFP shortly before Kan visited the town.
The premier will later visit "J-village" in Fukushima, the base for hundreds of emergency crew who have been working at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, battered by the tsunami.
The plant has been leaking radiation, triggering worldwide concern, as workers continue tense stop-and-go efforts aimed at shutting it down.
The environmental impact is worsening, with high levels of radioactive materials found in air, soil, groundwater and seawater.