Japan fell silent at 2:46 pm on Monday, exactly one month after the north-east of the country was devastated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami, killing some 25,000 people and spawning an unresolved nuclear crisis.
AP - People along Japan’s devastated northeastern coast paused Monday to remember victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that killed up to 25,000 people and unleashed a nuclear crisis that engineers are still struggling to contain.
With thousands of bodies yet to be found, a tsunami-flooded nuclear power plant still spewing radiation and more than 150,000 people living in shelters, there was little time for reflection on Japan’s worst disaster since World War II.
“Even after a month, I still cry when I watch the news,” said Marina Seito, 19, a student at a junior college who recalled being in a basement restaurant when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit March 11. Plates fell and parts of the ceiling crashed down around her.
Sirens sounded and people in hard-hit towns wept during ceremonies at 2:46 p.m., the exact moment of the quake that spawned the tsunami.
In the devastated coastal neighborhood of Natori, three dozen firemen and soldiers removed their hats and helmets and joined hands atop a small hill that has become a memorial for the dead. Earlier, four monks in pointed hats rang a prayer bell there as they chanted for those killed.
The noisy clatter of construction equipment ceased briefly as crane operators stood outside their vehicles and bowed their heads.
The earthquake and tsunami flattened communities along hundreds of miles (kilometers) of coastline, causing what the government estimates could be as much as $310 billion in damage. More than 158,000 people are still without electricity and 210,000 have no running water, although some of that is because of a 7.1-magnitude aftershock that rattled the area last week.
“We offer our deepest condolences to those who lost their loved ones,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Monday at a brief news conference where he pledged the government would do whatever it could to help survivors and end the nuclear crisis. “We are sorry for causing inconvenience and difficulties to those who still live in shelters.”
Adding to the misery is radiation spewing from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, which lost its cooling systems when water from the tsunami washed over it.
Government officials have ordered the 70,000 to 80,000 people who live within 12 miles (120 kilometers) to leave, and those farther from the plant may also be told to evacuate as the crisis drags on.
“We have no future plans. We can’t even start to think about it because we don’t know how long this will last or how long we will have to stay in these shelters,” said Atsushi Yanai, a 55-year-old construction worker. The tsunami spared his home, but he has to live in a shelter anyway because it is in the evacuation zone.
Nuclear safety official Hidehiko Nishiyama apologized for the worry and inconvenience caused by the radiation spilling from the plant, where cooling systems still have not been restored and likely won’t be for several months. Contamination leaking into the ocean and into soil has raised concerns about the safety of food including fish, vegetables and milk.
“It’s still difficult to give a timeline regarding when we can resolve the problem,” Nishiyama said Monday. “We are very sorry for the evacuees who are anxious to see the problem resolved.”
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said its president, Masataka Shimizu, went to Fukushima prefecture Monday to relay his gratitude and apologies. He did not speak to the press there. Shimizu recently spent eight days in the hospital with dizziness and high blood pressure, but has since returned to work.
As workers at Fukushima Dai-ichi struggle to remove contaminated water that has prevented them from restoring cooling systems, the search for bodies along the coast continues. More than 14,000 people are still listed as missing.
Japanese and U.S. troops fanned out along the coast for another all-out search by land, air and sea on Sunday managed to find 103 bodies.
Just 13,000 deaths have been confirmed so far, and many bodies have likely washed out to sea and will never be found.
Japan’s government marked the anniversary Monday by placing an ad in overseas newspapers, a letter from Prime Minister Naoto Kan thanking people around the world for the outpouring of support that followed the tsunami. He described it as “kizuna,” the bond of friendship, and said that with the help of the global community, Japan would come back stronger than ever.
“We are still receiving a tremendous outpouring of encouragement, prayers and support from people worldwide,” he wrote. “We deeply appreciate the kizuna our friends from around the world have shown and I want to thank every nation, entity, and you personally, from the bottom of my heart.”