11 Mars 2016
March 11, 2016
By TOMOYA ISHIKAWA/ Staff Writer
Five years to the day of the catastrophic Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, ceremonies were held throughout Japan on March 11 to remember the victims.
Survivors, including those forced to evacuate after the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, attended services at locations throughout Japan because many are still unable to return to their wrecked hometowns.
Although the government had designated the period ending in March this year as one for concentrated rebuilding from the disasters, many hard-hit municipalities have a long way to go before they return to any semblance of the past.
Only about half of the government-funded rental housing units for disaster victims have been completed in the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.
That may be one reason why more than 174,000 residents still live as evacuees five years on. Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures account for about 70 percent of the evacuees.
Perhaps one positive is that the number of evacuees has decreased to about a third of the 470,000 or so left homeless, or forced to leave home, immediately after the disasters.
Statistics relating to the disasters were released by the National Police Agency on March 10.
A total of 15,894 people died and 2,561 are still reported as missing.
As of the end of September 2015, a total of 3,407 people have died due to a deterioration of health, suicide or other reasons related to the disasters--a figure compiled by the Reconstruction Agency.
An NPA report as of the end of 2015 found 202 evacuees from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures died alone in temporary housing.
LACK OF HOUSING
About 54,000 households in the three prefectures continue to reside in temporary housing. The prefectures have plans to construct a total of 29,573 rental units for disaster victims, but so far only 14,042 have been completed, or 47.5 percent of the planned total.
A lack of construction workers is the main reason for the delay.
Other areas of construction have progressed much faster. More than 90 percent of roads and river levees have been restored to their former state.
Seventy-four percent of the farmland inundated by the tsunami five years ago has also been restored. The volume of the catch brought into major fishing ports has also returned to about 90 percent of the predisaster level. However, only 24 percent of seafood processing companies--a major local industry--have seen sales return to predisaster levels.
About 70,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture continue to live as evacuees because they resided in areas where evacuation orders were issued due to the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
While such evacuation orders have been lifted for Tamura, Naraha and part of Kawauchi, not all residents who lived in the areas covered by those orders have returned home. The ratio of those who have returned is 69 percent for Tamura, 20 percent for Kawauchi and only 6 percent for Naraha.
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.
MINAMISANRIKU, Miyagi -- Five years after the deadly 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, a mourning ceremony for the victims was held here next to a monument to 119 locals who perished or remain unaccounted for.
Akio Miura, 76, is the father of Takeshi, then 51, an employee of the town's risk management department who vanished in the tsunami while he made tsunami warning announcements at the disaster prevention headquarters building. Miura wiped tears away while praying at the ceremony.
When graduating from junior high school, Takeshi had been advised to advance to a local prep school but instead opted to enroll in a marine-products vocational school, where he obtained radio certification. He then got his job at the town government.
When the March 11 tsunami struck, he took turns with his coworkers calling on the radio for evacuation of residents up until just before the tsunami hit.
"When I stopped hearing my son's voice on the radio, I thought he must have become a victim. He had a strong sense of responsibility," Miura says.
Unable to accept that his son was dead, Miura joined his wife Sueko, 80, in searching for him, but they never found his body. To comfort the spirit of his son, who he thought of as cold and in the water somewhere, he brought warming undergarments to Mount Osore in Aomori Prefecture, traditionally considered a place for dead souls.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think of him, my only son," Miura says.
Shinetsu Sato, 65, who lives in the Utatsu district of Minamisanriku, location of the monument, has not found his parents, Takeshi, and Itsuyo, who were aged 90 and 81 at the time of the disaster, respectively. Takeshi had been hospitalized at Shizugawa Hospital at the time, his asthma having worsened, and Itsuyo was staying there to watch over him. Located along the coast, the hospital was hit by tsunami exceeding 16 meters, and 74 people are thought to have died.
A nurse who survived testifies, "I told them to run, but Itsuyo held onto Takeshi's arm and wouldn't let go."
Three days later, a blanket with Takeshi's name was found in a window frame of the hospital, but his body never turned up. Four months later, Sato held a funeral for his parents. He says, "It was pitiful to not have the remains of either at the funeral, but I believe they are with each other. They liked hot springs, and I wonder if they are sitting in a hot spring in the afterworld."
A ceremony of remembrance has been held in Tokyo for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11th, 2011.
About 1,200 people attended the government-sponsored event on Friday, the 5th anniversary of the disaster that also triggered the nuclear plant accident in Fukushima.
Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined others in observing a moment of silence at 2:46 PM, the exact time the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck.
Abe said in his speech that reconstruction of the disaster-hit regions is making steady progress. He said his government is determined to never allow the valuable lessons learned from the disaster to erode.
Abe pledged that the government will exert its unified efforts to build a strong and resilient nation that is resistant to disasters.
The Emperor said many people continue to live in difficult conditions to this day, both in the afflicted regions and in the places where they have evacuated to.
He said it is important that everyone's hearts continue to be with the afflicted, so that each person in difficulty -- without exception -- will be able to get back to their normal lives as soon as possible.
Representatives of victims' relatives from the hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima also spoke.
Kuniyuki Sakuma from Fukushima referred to the nuclear accident that forced many people from their homes.
He said his father passed away in a snowy, cold region far from his hometown after spending a long time as a refugee.
Sakuma said it is vital that the disaster never be forgotten. He called on families to continue passing on their experiences to future generations and across the world.