ISHINOMAKI, Japan - Tears, prayers and a resolve to pass on lessons learned swept Japan Thursday as the country marked 10 years since a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated its northeastern coast, with services to mourn the more than 15,000 lives lost held in the hardest-hit areas and Tokyo.
Residents in the severely affected prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi observed a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m., exactly a decade after the huge quake shook eastern and northeastern Japan, triggering tsunami and the world's worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl crisis.
"Even though 10 years have passed, the wounds in the heart remain," an 81-year-old man reflected as he rubbed his grandson's nameplate on a cenotaph in Ishinomaki dedicated to victims of the disaster.
Places for people to lay flowers were set up from the morning at various venues in the region, while some residents stood near the sea and other sites to clasp their hands together in prayer.
In Miyagi's Ishinomaki, more than 3,000 died in the event, more than in any other municipality, and locals took a moment from their daily schedules to remember loved ones as the sun shone down.
Flowers were set up near Kashimamiko Shrine on Mt. Hiyori, which had served as an evacuation spot on the day of the tsunami.
A 65-year-old woman and her husband, 76, gazed over the park toward the ocean on Thursday morning. "Even if reconstruction is progressing, it feels empty inside. There's no one around," she said.
The couple's house escaped destruction by the tsunami as it was built on high ground, but she says her sister-in-law's family were not as lucky -- out of their family of seven, only two people were saved.
In neighboring Higashimatsushima, also among the cities badly hit, Kojun Akiyama, a monk at a Buddhist temple, remembered his older brother Seido, who died in the tsunami at age 49. The temple at which he served as a priest was swept away by the tsunami and Akiyama took over and rebuilt it two years ago.
"We all are living, carrying the sadness in our hearts," Akiyama, 53, said.
Many municipalities in these prefectures went ahead with ceremonies after canceling or scaling back last year due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The magnitude-9.0 quake and ensuing tsunami left 15,900 people dead and 2,525 missing, according to the latest figures from the National Police Agency and local police in the disaster-hit areas.
On Thursday, local police in the disaster-hit region conducted one of their regular searches of coastal areas in Fukushima and Iwate for any sign of remains of those swept away by the tsunami.
Local police officers also searched a beach in an area where about 70,000 pine trees were felled by the tsunami. The area is situated in Iwate's Rikuzentakata, where more than 1,700 people died, both in the actual incident and after from issues related to the disasters, including illness.
At a downsized ceremony at the National Theatre in the Japanese capital, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and guests observed a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m.
"The task of reconstruction is now entering its final phases in these (disaster-hit) regions," with homes reconstructed and towns revived to a great extent, Suga said in the ceremony also attended by Emperor Naruhito and his wife Empress Masako.
More than 30 trillion yen ($277 billion) has been spent on reconstruction projects over the past decade. The government last year approved a bill to extend the life of the Reconstruction Agency, established to oversee rebuilding efforts, until 2031, a decade longer than initially planned.
Still, Suga said, 2,000 people remain living in temporary housing and the disaster-hit areas "still need to address issues such as psychological care."
"Moreover these areas have been struck by various hardships, including Typhoon 19 two years ago, the novel coronavirus disease since last year, and recently a large earthquake," he added.
He pledged the government's "continuous and seamless support" to ensure people's lives are restored and to speed up the return of citizens to homes in areas affected by the Fukushima accident.
Appearing at the Tokyo ceremony on behalf of bereaved residents of Fukushima Prefecture, Makoto Saito, 50, said that while he acknowledges reconstruction has progressed considerably, the "recovery of the hearts of the bereaved families have not progressed the way they would want due to overwhelming sadness."
Saito does not want his 5-year-old son Shota's death to be in vain, and vowed to ensure the memory of the disaster will not fade, nor the lessons learned.
"I work at an elementary school and through my workplace, I want to tell children what I experienced and teach them the preciousness of life," he said.
The ceremony in Tokyo, the Japanese capital which is currently under an extended state of emergency, was canceled last year due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The government has said the event will be the last in its current incarnation, with future memorial events depending on the situation at the time.
Emperor Naruhito, who has visited the disaster-hit areas, said in his address that his heart aches for the victims and urged everyone to unite and stand by those who have suffered to "help all of them regain their peaceful daily lives in less than no time without leaving even a single soul behind in this difficult situation."
Evacuation orders, issued after tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant causing the release of massive amounts of radioactive material, have already been lifted in many parts of the prefecture as decontamination work has progressed.
The no-go zone now covers approximately 337 square kilometers, just 30 percent of the area it was at its largest, equivalent to more than half the area covered by central Tokyo's 23 wards.
While the number of displaced people has dropped from a peak of 470,000, around 41,000 have yet to return to their home towns since the quake.
In Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, evacuation drills were held, demonstrating to children not old enough to have experienced the real thing the importance of fleeing the ocean after an earthquake.
In Tokyo, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa instructed his staff to constantly ensure the safety of nuclear reactors and not drop their guard just because the reactors cleared the regulator's tough safety screening -- now deemed world's best-practice.
"We need to be sufficiently careful not to fall into a fresh 'safety myth'," Fuketa said, referring to the pre-Fukushima situation in which nuclear power plants in Japan were assumed by government and utilities to be undoubtedly accident-safe.
A decades-long process to scrap the crippled plant continues, with operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. saying earlier this month it had completed the removal of all nuclear fuel rods from the storage pool of the No. 3 reactor building at the complex.
The No. 3 unit was one of the three reactors that suffered core meltdowns following the earthquake and tsunami. Japan decided in December 2019 to delay the excruciatingly slow and dangerous process of removing spent fuel from the storage pools of the other two reactors by as much as five years to March 2029.
Suga has indicated the government will soon decide how to dispose of treated radioactive water stored in tanks at the crippled power plant, especially with capacity expected to run out by the fall of 2022.
The decommissioning of the crippled facility remains uncertain, with doubts remaining over whether TEPCO will be able to meet its timeframe in the face of numerous technical challenges.