Japan mourns tsunami dead one year after disaster

Mon, Mar 12, 2012, 00:00

JAPAN FELL silent yesterday to remember last year’s March 11th disaster, which killed 19,000 people, triggered a still-unresolved nuclear crisis and drove hundreds of thousands of refugees from their homes.

Millions across the country bowed their heads and prayed at 2.46pm, the exact time the magnitude-9 earthquake struck off the northeast, unleashing a huge tsunami that bludgeoned the coast and levelled cities and towns.

Sirens wailed and Buddhist bells rang in towns across the Tohoku (northeast) region, where many of the 344,000 evacuees still homeless from the disaster live in cramped temporary housing.

The anniversary was marked by anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo and other cities, amid the ongoing struggle to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Demonstrators formed a human chain around the Diet (parliament building), while about 16,000 people gathered in Fukushima prefecture, close to the contaminated exclusion zone around the crippled complex.

“I’ve decided to protest because I want an end to nuclear power in this country,” said Sachio Miyasagi, one of about 20,000 protesters in Hibiya Park, central Tokyo. “It’s clear from what happened last year that it is too dangerous.”

At the National Theatre a few miles away, Emperor Akihito, who is recovering from heart surgery, stood with prime minister Yoshihiko Noda and 1,200 other mourners and said prayers for the dead. The emperor said Japan must recover. “We shall never forget those who gave their lives helping others.”

Eriko Okuda, who lost her parents and two children in the tsunami, tearfully told the audience that her heart ached every time she thought of what they went through. “I’m sometimes embarrassed that I survived.”

Mr Noda earlier pledged that the world’s third-largest economy would emerge stronger from the tragedy. “Our goal is not simply to reconstruct the Japan that existed before March 11th, 2011, but to build a new Japan,” he said in an advertisement published in the Washington Postyesterday. “We are determined to overcome this historic challenge.”

The anniversary has been marred, however, by widespread criticism that the pace of recovery is slowing, typified by yesterday’s headline in the English-language daily, the Japan Times– “A Year On, Tohoku Stuck in Limbo.”

Just 6 per cent of the 22.5 tons of debris left behind by the quake and tsunami has been cleared, held back by widespread fears that it is contaminated by fallout from the triple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Large swathes of the northeast coast still resemble wastelands, and rebuilding is stalled by financial and other problems.

The nuclear meltdown and a series of explosions showered about 8 per cent of Japan with radioactive contamination and forced the evacuation of over 100,000 people.

Recent revelations suggest that the Fukushima plant narrowly avoid a worse catastrophe in the week after March 11th last year. Then prime minister Naoto Kan stopped the plant’s managers from fleeing and abandoning its out-of-control reactors, possibly saving Tokyo.

“I’ve been looking at the pictures on TV all day and still can’t believe we lived through it,” says Kaori Naiji, who gave birth to her daughter, Wakana, during the disaster. “There was a power cut and no heating, and I couldn’t call anyone after my baby was born because the phones were down,” she recalls. “And we didn’t even know what was going on the nuclear plant.”

Like many yesterday, she said she is afraid for Japan’s future and wonders how it will recover. “I look at my daughter and she embodies our hope. I want her to live in a different world.”