Japan marks six months after tsunami

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The people of Japan fell silent in prayer on Sunday, six months after an earthquake and tsunami left 20,000 dead or missing and sparked a nuclear crisis on the country’s Pacific coast.
At 2.46pm the eerie wail of warning sirens rang out, marking exactly six months since the 9.0-magnitude quake struck offshore, unleashing towering waves which swallowed ships, sea walls, vehicles and whole communities.
In towns and villages along the devastated coast, mourners gathered to remember the dead, while in Tokyo anti-nuclear rallies were held over the Fukushima crisis – the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. In the town of Minamisanriku, where 900 people were killed and 60 percent of the buildings were destroyed, about 2,000 people dressed in black gathered at a public gymnasium to observe a moment’s silence.
“We never give up hope and vow to unite as one in building a new town so that we can make up for the sacrifice of precious lives of many people,” Minamisanriku mayor Jin Sato said during the remembrance service. The disaster crippled cooling systems and sparked meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, some 220 kilometres (138 miles) northeast of Tokyo, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate, still with no idea when they can return home.
“The most difficult thing is that I have lost my job and it is hard to work out plans for my children,” Takahiro Murakami, 35, told AFP in Minamisanriku. “The biggest shock was to see my town disappear.” In the major fishing port of Ishinomaki, where 4,000 people lost their lives in the tsunami, people gathered on a hill overlooking the town below where mounds of debris and wrecked vehicles littered the waterfront.
As the sirens wailed out they folded their hands and prayed, many of them in tears. A 600-kilometre (375-mile) stretch of the scenic northeast coast was left devastated by the disaster, with 23 million tonnes of debris still in need of disposal – and 4,100 people yet to be accounted for.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a series of anti-nuclear rallies were held, with about 1,000 people, including many families, marching through the trendy streets of Shibuya and children holding placards which read: “No Nukes.” About 1,300 people formed a human chain around the economy ministry, which is responsible for nuclear power, and a few thousand rallied in Shinjuku, chanting: “We don’t need nuclear power plants.”
The six-month anniversary came amid embarrassment for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s new government after trade minister Yoshio Hachiro resigned on Saturday over remarks deemed insensitive to Fukushima evacuees. After touring the Fukushima plant and the no-go zone with Noda on Thursday, Hachiro sparked fierce criticism by referring to the plant’s neighbourhood as a “town of death”.
Noda held a meeting with his ministers on post-disaster reconstruction on Sunday and apologised for Hachiro’s gaffe after observing a minute’s silence.
“Our struggle with the Fukushima accident is only half done,” Noda said. “Without solving the accident, Japan cannot regain (international) trust.”
The prime minister on Saturday travelled to ravaged Miyagi and Iwate prefectures for the first time since taking office last month, when he replaced Naoto Kan, who resigned amid criticism over his handling of the disaster. The government was accused of underplaying the full scale of the nuclear crisis, and allowing political infighting to overshadow recovery efforts.
Rebuilding the muddy wastelands of the northeastern “Tohoku” region is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars and take up to a decade. Areas close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant may be uninhabitable for even longer. Radiation fears became a feature of daily life after cases of contaminated water, beef, vegetables, tea and seafood. But the government has been at pains to stress the lack of an “immediate” health risk.