March 12, 2014 08:07
Japan is marking the third anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami disaster that killed over 18,000 people and caused the world's worst nuclear crisis in decades.
A moment of silence was held across the country at 2:46 p.m. local time Tuesday, exactly three years after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit.
At a ceremony, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of the need for resilience and promised to speed up much-needed reconstruction efforts.
"Our predecessors overcame many troubles and much suffering, but each time got back up stronger than before," he said. "Those who live today must learn from them and I hereby pledge to work together hand-in-hand to meet whatever challenges face us."
The undersea quake triggered a killer tsunami that swallowed coastal communities. It also battered the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which suffered three meltdowns and still spews radiation into the atmosphere.
Despite billions of dollars in government pledges, efforts to rebuild the disaster-hit region have been slow. More than 270,000 people are still without a permanent home, many remaining in cramped temporary housing units.
Engineers said it will take at least four decades to dismantle the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Temple University Asian studies professor Jeff Kingston told VOA frustration is widespread. "I guess people probably didn't imagine that there'd still be more than a quarter million people still displaced by the events of three years ago. Most people are disappointed with the pace of rebuilding," he said. "A vast majority of people think it's going way too slow and the government needs to do more to push it forward."
In some of the worst-hit areas, many wonder if the government intends to rebuild at all.
Yuzo Uehara traveled Tuesday to the town of Minamisanrikucho, much of which remains either destroyed or deserted.
"It feels as if time passed quickly, and at the same time slowly. If you say three years, children would have grown. But as you can see, there's nothing here," Yuzo Uehara said. "That's the reality now."
There have also been protests at Abe's plan to restart nuclear reactors that were closed for safety checks in response to the crisis.
Michael Cucek with the Tokyo-based MIT Center for International Studies told VOA the government views nuclear power as a crucial source of energy.
"Basically, Japan is burning through its checkbook to buy fossil fuels around the world at very high prices which are jacked up precisely because Japan has no choice. The figures came out yesterday, [Tokyo reported] the biggest capital account deficit in Japan's history. We have a huge trade deficit, also mostly due to the increase in consumption of fossil fuels trying to replace lost generating capacity at Fukushima," said Cucek.
Back at Tuesday's ceremony in Tokyo, Emperor Akihito was focused less on policy and more on unity. He said despite frustrations, it is important that the Japanese people "unite their hearts and stand by each other."
Leaders from around the world also began sending in their well-wishes on Tuesday's anniversary. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that he continues to be "impressed by the strength of the Japanese people" in overcoming the crisis. He said the U.S. will continue to stand "shoulder to shoulder with our Japanese friends as they rebuild their lives and communities."
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