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Japan imperial couple visit tsunami zone

by Staff Writers
Sendai, Japan April 27, 2011
Japan's imperial couple on Wednesday made their first visit to the country's tsunami-ravaged northeast, where they were cheered by hundreds of elated well-wishers. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, seen as living symbols of national unity, comforted survivors of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at evacuation centres in a devastated port town and in nearby Sendai city. Meeting evacuees in Minamisanriku, now a wasteland of twisted debris and mud, the 77-year-old emperor knelt on the floor and futon mattresses in a crowded school hall to speak with families. "How's your health? Are you OK?" asked Akihito as the 76-year-old empress also spoke with evacuees in the town with a pre-quake population of around 20,000 people. Since the twin disasters, 496 bodies have been recovered there and 656 people are still listed as missing. The tsunami destroyed more than 3,800 houses in the town, leaving over 6,000 people sheltering in evacuation centres. When the couple headed to their next stop, a gymnasium housing newly homeless people in badly-hit Sendai city, hundreds lined the streets as their white car passed, many shouting: "Thank you for coming!" The empress received a bunch of yellow flowers as she visited families in their crowded makeshift shelters between cardboard partitions. "At a time like this, they have made a public appearance, which means a lot to us," said one of the well-wishers, Keiko Kato, a woman in her 50s. "They aren't so young any more, and it must be difficult for them to travel like this. But still they are doing this out of compassion. Just by seeing them, I feel so fulfilled." The emperor -- who delivered his first ever televised address to the grieving nation a week after the quake -- and his wife have in recent weeks visited evacuation shelters further south, in prefectures near Tokyo. But the trip Wednesday was their first to the area that suffered the most devastation in the March 11 disaster, Japan's worst post-war calamity which killed more than 14,500 people and left almost 11,500 missing. The Imperial Household Agency said that the couple will visit disaster-hit Iwate prefecture on Monday and travel on May 11 to Fukushima prefecture to meet people forced from their homes by the nuclear crisis. Emergency crews are still battling to cool reactors at the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant, which has leaked radiation in the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl a quarter-century ago. Japan has enforced a 20-kilometre (12-mile) no-go zone around the plant, where workers are dousing reactors and fuel rod pools with water to prevent the nuclear fuel inside from overheating and fully melting down. Embattled plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said Tuesday it would begin pumping in more water to fully flood the containment vessel around the number one reactor. TEPCO said it would carefully raise water levels and check whether contaminated water is leaking from any cracks caused by the initial quake or a series of strong aftershocks, officials said. Radiation from the stricken and explosion-hit facility has wafted into the air, seeped into the ground and leaked into the Pacific Ocean, leading to bans on some farm produce and a stop to fishing nearby. In Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, some elementary and junior high schools started removing the surface soil from playgrounds because of concerns over radioactive contamination, officials said. The disaster has caused massive damage to the world's third-largest economy, wiping out towns and infrastructure, causing power outages, disrupting industrial supply chains and dampening consumer sentiment. Ratings agency Standard & Poor's said Wednesday that total reconstruction costs could range from 20 trillion yen to 50 trillion yen ($245 billion to $612 billion). It revised down its debt outlook to negative and predicted the fiscal deficit would rise to 145 percent of GDP in the fiscal year to March 2014, although it did not expect damage to Japan's medium-term growth potential.

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Tokyo (AFP) April 27, 2011
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