BY REIJI YOSHIDA
At 2:46 p.m. Friday, millions of people observed a moment of silence across Japan as the country marked the fifth anniversary of the March 2011 quake and tsunami that devastated coastal areas of the Tohoku region, killing at least 19,304 and leaving an additional 2,561 still unaccounted for as of Thursday.
The anniversary comes as about 174,000 evacuees from disaster-hit areas are still living outside their damaged hometowns.
They include more than 43,000 from Fukushima, most of whom are believed to have fled the radioactive fallout from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was wrecked by the killer tsunami.
On Friday, a memorial ceremony organized by the government and held in Tokyo was attended by Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as three representatives of survivors from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the three main areas devastated in the disasters.
Likewise in many places throughout Tohoku, memorial ceremonies were held with a moment of silence observed at 2:46 p.m., the moment when the magnitude-9.0 quake rocked the region, triggering the gigantic tsunami that struck five years ago.
“On this day five years ago, I was a senior high school student and, as was our daily custom, my grandfather saw me off at the front door and my father drove me to the train station,” Hisato Yamamoto, 22, a representative from Iwate Prefecture, said in a speech at the ceremony in Tokyo.
“The body of my grandfather was found a few days later. … My beloved father has never come home to us,” she said.
Her father, Sachio Yamamoto, was a firefighter. He went missing after rushing to close a coastal barrier floodgate to save the town of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.
“I have pressed my mother for an explanation why he had to go,” she said.
“But today, I am proud of him and respect him for trying to protect people’s lives as a member of the town’s firefighting unit,” she said.
In his address, Emperor Akihito said progress has been made over the last five years, but many people continue to live under difficult conditions, both in the disaster-hit areas and the places they have evacuated to.
“It is important that everyone’s hearts continue to be with the afflicted, so that each and every person in difficulty, without exception, will be able to get back their normal lives as soon as possible,” he said.
In a paper released Thursday, the central government said that the “restoration of social infrastructure had been largely finished.”
According to the government, local residents have finished or are in the process of rebuilding 130,000 houses by themselves. In addition, another 9,000 structures have been built to move coastal communities to higher ground to avoid another tsunami, with 17,000 more public housing units constructed for disaster survivors.
At a news conference Thursday, Abe argued that the Tohoku region is continuing to “make steady progress” toward recovery.
“Now more than 70 percent of (disaster-hit) agricultural land has become ready for planting, and nearly 90 percent of fishery-product processing facilities have resumed operations,” Abe boasted at the news conference.
“Seeds of new industries are now evolving one after another in disaster-hit areas,” he added.
Many local residents and workers, however, continue to struggle.
Despite Abe’s words of praise for the recovery, just 48 percent of fishery-product processing plants in Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures have seen sales recover to 80 percent or more of their pre-disaster levels, according to a survey conducted by the Fisheries Agency from November through January.
In many Tohoku cities and towns, the fishing industry is considered one of few indigenous sectors that could support local economies once the central government begins to cut its massive spending on reconstruction work in the region.
Disaster-hit coastal communities are also facing a graying and shrinking population, which will make it even more difficult for local towns to recover from the lingering effects of 3/11.
According to a poll conducted by the daily Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, 16 of 42 mayors of cities and towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures said they expect the populations of their municipalities will dwindle more than 10 percent over the next decade.
Meanwhile, at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, problems remain far from solved.
Tepco said it will take another 30 to 40 years to finish work to decommission the heavily damaged reactors, given the deadly levels of radiation still emanating from melted nuclear fuel somewhere within the reactor buildings.
Another big headache is the growing number, currently at about 1,000, of massive tanks that have been set up within the plant compound to hold some 800,000 tons of contaminated water.
Tepco has already processed about 600,000 tons with its Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which is capable of removing 62 kinds of radioactive material from tainted water. But the machine is unable to remove radioactive tritium, the reason Tepco must continue building an ever-rising number of tanks to hold the tainted water at the Fukushima plant.
Meanwhile, the Abe administration is now gearing up to reactivate more of the nation’s 42 commercial reactors that remain shut down in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Off the 44 total reactors, two in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, have already been reactivated despite protests by anti-nuclear activists.
Utilities are applying for safety checks by the Nuclear Regulation Authority to reactivate another 22 reactors nationwide.
“Nuclear power is indispensable for our country, which has few natural resources, to secure stable energy supplies while addressing climate change issues,” Abe said at Thursday’s news conference.
He also claimed that a set of new safety standards introduced after the Fukushima disaster “are the strictest in the world” and that his government would promote the reactivation of reactors once they pass the screening by the NRA.