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Japan strives to win back tourists
by Staff Writers
Berlin (AFP) March 11, 2012

Candlelight events mark Japan disaster anniversary
Fukushima, Japan (AFP) March 11, 2012 - Candlelight ceremonies were held across Japan Sunday night, wrapping up a day of commemoration as the nation marked the first anniversary of its devastating earthquake and tsunami.

More than 300 people gathered for "Candle Night" in front of local government offices in Fukushima city hours after around 16,000 people held an anti-nuclear rally in Koriyama, central Fukushima.

Organisers laid out candles in the form of a Chinese character of "kizuna", which means bonds between people, while musicians, including popstar Mayo Okamoto, performed.

"I came here to make a wish; this tragedy will never happen again and I can go home as soon as possible," said Chieko Daito, 35, who was evacuated from Iitate after high levels of radiation were found there.

In Ishinomaki, one of the coastal cities hit hard by the monster tsunami, some 2,000 candles were lit on the ground, while white balloons shaped as doves were released into the dark sky.

In Morioka, Iwate, city officials and private groups jointly held a candlelight event calling on citizens to light more than 19,000 candles, one for every person listed as dead or missing in the catastrophe.

Exactly a year ago, a magnitude 9.0 quake sent a tsunami barreling into Japan's northeastern coast, swamping cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 220 kilometres (140 miles) northeast of Tokyo.

Three reactors went into meltdown, spewing radiation into the environment and forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate a 20-kilometre no-go zone immediately around the facility.

Japanese tourism is still hurting a year after the tsunami and nuclear disaster, industry officials said here, warning that business was only likely to get fully back on track next year.

Japan saw a 28-percent fall in the number of visitors arriving in the country in 2011 compared with a year earlier, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) said, predicting a full recovery by mid-2012.

But, amid posters stating "Japan, Rising Again. Thank you for Your Support", Japanese travel industry representatives at the ITB Berlin tourism fair, one of the top industry gatherings, were more cautious.

Hiromi Waldenberger, a Tokyo city tourism representative for the German market, said hopes were now pinned on next spring for the number of visitors to the city returning to pre-March 2011 levels.

"We hope for the next cherry blossom season, so March-April 2013... I think that's realistic," she said.

"But we have to work for it. The image of Japan is still quite damaged," she said at the fair where she first heard news last year of the devastating quake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

From April until next March, the Japan Tourism Agency is spending about five billion yen (46 million euros, $60 million) to promote the country, Takuo Nagano, marketing specialist for Europe, Americas and Oceania at the Japan National Tourism Organisation, said.

While about half is destined to help get the tourism infrastructure in the quake-damaged Tohoku region back on its feet, the rest will help promote Japan in its 13 biggest markets, he said.

Tourism representatives who spoke to AFP said visitors largely shunned Japan immediately after last year's earthquake set off a tsunami that left more than 19,000 people dead in the country's worst post-World War II disaster.

"It was very slow after the tsunami, almost all the tourists cancelled," said Kazu Iizuka, a sales manager for the Nippon Travel Agency.

Business recovered slightly from October but despite hopes it would have caught up by next month to about half its 2010 level, it was still only at about 30 percent, he said.

Kyoto, meanwhile, used to receive about 2.3 million visitors annually before the accident, 70 percent of whom came from Europe, America, Australia or New Zealand, Rie Doi, of the city's tourism promotion division, said.

Although she did not have figures for the economic loss due to the drop in foreign visitors, she said they used to spend on average between 50,000 yen (463 euros, $613) and 60,000 yen per stay.

She said that tourism to Kyoto would return to normal "hopefully" next year, although signs of a recovery had already begun in late 2011.

In Tokyo, on the other hand, German tourists began to return last July after a more than 60-percent drop immediately after the accident, Waldenberger said.

"It's getting better but has not at all reached the prior level. We actually hoped that mid-2012 the situation would be, maybe not fully, but mostly, recovered again.

"But it doesn't look like it. It takes a bit more time."

The accident had dashed expectations that 2011 would be a bumper year for German tourists to Japan, she said.

Waldenberger explained that Japan had become popular partly due to the film "Cherry Blossoms" by Germany's Doris Doerrie, as well as a result of official events laid on to mark 150 years of German-Japanese friendship.

The ITB travel trade show, with 10,644 exhibitors from 187 countries, runs until March 11.

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Japan PM calls for quicker tsunami waste processing
Tokyo (AFP) March 11, 2012 - The whole of Japan must redouble efforts to help rid tsunami-hit communities of the millions of tonnes of waste generated by last year's disaster, the prime minister said Sunday.

As the country marked the first anniversary of the tragedy that claimed more than 19,000 lives, Yoshihiko Noda urged areas outside of the disaster zone to pitch in to help dispose of the rubble.

"Today is a day of mourning as well as a day to renew our resolve to rebuild," he told a press conference just hours after the country observed a minute's silence at the exact moment the tsunami-causing quake struck last year.

"I urge the entire public to recognise that we are all directly involved in reconstruction."

The monster tsunami crushed whole communities along Japan's northeast coast, leaving behind 22.5 million tonnes of debris, including splintered houses and wrecked cars, most of which remains piled up in the region.

Only a handful of municipalities outside the disaster zone have offered to help process the debris, amid stiff public opposition from residents who fear it could be contaminated by radiation.

The tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, sending reactors into meltdown and shooting toxic isotopes into the atmosphere.

The government insists debris in Iwate and Miyagi, north of Fukushima, is virtually radiation free and does not pose a risk to human health when incinerated or processed.

"The world lavished praise on the spirit of the Japanese for helping one another in the aftermath of the disaster," Noda said.

"That Japanese psyche is being tested again. The processing of debris is a symbol of that."

Tokyo has offered to largely offset any costs local governments incur in accepting the waste.

Noda said he will be asking private companies, such as cement and paper producers, to help out with the task.


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Japan marks anniversary of tsunami tragedy
Ishinomaki, Japan (AFP) March 11, 2012
Public life in Japan will pause Sunday as the nation marks a year since a huge earthquake and tsunami killed 19,000 people and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands more. At 2.46 pm (0546 GMT) trains will stop, shoppers will stand still and people throughout the archipelago will fall silent to mark the exact moment nature's fury was visited on the nation, when the 9.0-magnitude quake se ... read more

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