by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) March 11, 2016
Japan on Friday marked five years since an enormous 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck, unleashing a towering tsunami that levelled communities along Japan's northeast coast.
About 18,500 people were left dead or missing as the terrifying waves swallowed up everything in their path.
The water swamped reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant, sparking reactor meltdowns in the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
Here's a look at the situation five years later.
1) Is the tsunami-struck coastline back to normal?
Not for most people.
The government has poured billions of dollars into rebuilding. Some communities were moved to higher ground and bigger seawalls are going up.
But progress has been slow and many towns are a shadow of their former selves, with former residents unable -- or unwilling -- to move back.
2) What happened to all the people who were living there?
Tens of thousands moved to other parts of Japan or are still refugees living in temporary housing as they wait for new homes to be built. Some are jobless and suffer from depression, unable to pick up the pieces.
Life will never be the same for many survivors who lost relatives as the water swallowed schools and entire neighbourhoods while panicked residents tried to flee.
3) What is the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant?
Fukushima remains unstable. The surrounding area is still mostly a no-go zone for former residents.
Thousands are working on the decades-long decommissioning process. They perform delicate -- and dangerous -- work to make the volatile reactors safer. Remote-controlled robots are sent into the most radioactive areas.
However, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power has not found a long-term solution for dealing with massive amounts of tainted water used to cool the reactors that is stored in huge tanks on the crippled site.
There is debate about the long-term health effects of radiation that escaped during the accident, and contaminated water that still seeps into the Pacific.
4) Does that mean Japan has abandoned nuclear power?
Many Japanese want to ditch atomic power forever.
The government and business community have other ideas -- they want to switch dozens of shuttered reactors back on, mainly because energy bills skyrocketed after the crisis.
Only a handful of reactors have come back online owing to stricter safety rules and major public opposition. Nuclear once supplied more than one-quarter of Japan's energy.
But Tokyo's pro-nuclear policy hit another snag this week after a court ordered that two reactors be shut down again, owing to safety risks.
There are now just two reactors operating nationwide.
5) What's being done to guard against another disaster?
Some tsunami-struck communities moved to higher ground. Bigger seawalls are going up along the coast along with higher barriers to protect at-risk reactors.
New laws have been passed to quicken Tokyo's disaster response, and communities have beefed up evacuation plans.
Japan also set up an independent atomic watchdog, a response to the cosy ties between industry and government cited as a key factor in the Fukushima accident.
But critics say it's not enough, and seismologists warn that Japan will suffer another quake-tsunami disaster that dwarfs the 2011 catastrophe, killing about 300,000 people along its eastern coast, by government estimates.
Japan marks 5th anniversary of quake, tsunami disaster with moment of silence
Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other participants at a national ceremony in Tokyo bowed their heads along with residents across the affected region at 2:46 pm (0546 GMT) -- the exact moment on March 11, 2011 the magnitude 9.0 quake struck under the Pacific Ocean.
The massive earthquake unleashed a giant wall of water that swallowed schools and entire neighbourhoods, with unforgettable images of panicked residents fleeing to higher ground and vehicles and ships bobbing in the swirling waters of flooded towns.
The waves also swamped power supplies at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing reactor meltdowns that released radiation in the most dangerous nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
In the northern city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture -- the region that suffered the most deaths -- survivors and bereaved relatives gathered at a Buddhist statue built for the repose of victims' souls in front of a huge breakwater at Arahama beach where massive waves crashed ashore five years ago.
Some joined hands in prayer, while a woman threw a bouquet of flowers into the sea.
Police and firefighters were seen combing beaches along the Pacific coast in continuing efforts to find evidence of victims, including bones, as many families say they still cannot abandon hope of seeing their loved ones again.
Besides the number of people killed in the quake and tsunami, about 3,400 deaths from causes such as illness and suicide have been linked to the aftermath of the tragedy.
In remarks at the solemn event in Tokyo inside the National Theatre, 82-year-old Akihito spoke of those who were forced to evacuate after the disaster because of nuclear contamination.
"I feel pain in my heart when I think of people who still could not return home," he said.
The crisis forced tens of thousands of residents near the stricken plant to flee their homes, farms and fishing boats. Some areas remain uninhabitable, though in others residents have been cleared to return.
As night fell in Sendai, residents gathered at a park where thousands of candles were arranged on the ground to form the Japanese-language phrase "toward the future light".
- 'Cold shutdown' -
The situation remains fragile in Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear plant suffered explosions that spread radioactive material into the surrounding countryside and ocean.
Authorities have since brought the reactors to a state of "cold shutdown" and dispatched work crews to cleanse affected houses, sweep streets and shave topsoil in "decontamination" efforts.
Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the shuttered plant, admits it has only made small steps in what is likely to be a four-decade battle to decommission the crippled reactors.
Japan's entire stable of reactors was shuttered in the disaster's aftermath but Abe and utility companies have been pushing to get as many as possible back in operation -- despite public opposition and legal hurdles -- saying they are essential to power the world's third-largest economy.
Only this week, a court temporarily ordered the shutdown of two reactors previously declared safe under new rules, demonstrating the ongoing battles over Japan's energy policy.
Abe, along with other political and business leaders, has frequently visited the disaster-struck region.
"Whenever I go to affected areas, I feel that the disaster is ongoing," the prime minister said at the Tokyo event, acknowledging the enormity of what remains to be done.
"But step by step, reconstruction is steadily making progress," added Abe, who the day before said the nation "cannot do without" nuclear power even as he vowed to reduce dependence on it.
On Friday night more than 200 people joined an anti-nuclear demonstration in front of Abe's office, chanting against reactor restarts.
"I had never imagined nuclear power plants could be dangerous until the Fukushima accident," said 19-year-old student Shiori Hoshino.
Despite rebuilding in the devastated region, many young families have moved away, accelerating its depopulation amid the broader greying of society, while those who have evacuated want to return but wonder if they ever can.
"I hope people will remember us, that lives of evacuees are still difficult in many ways, including financially," said 39-year-old Kazuko Nihei, who moved to Tokyo from Fukushima with her two daughters, at a memorial event in the capital.
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