A year on from Japan's day of disaster: 'I still can't believe we lived through it'

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Tokyo

Japan fell silent yesterday to remember last year's 11 March earthquake and tsunami, which killed 19,000 people, triggered a still unresolved nuclear crisis and drove hundreds of thousands of refugees from their homes.

Millions across the country bowed their heads and prayed at 2:46pm, the exact time the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck off the northeast, unleashing the huge waves that bludgeoned the coast and levelled cities and towns.

Sirens wailed and Buddhist bells rang in towns across the Tohoku (northeast) region, where many of the 344,000 evacuees still homeless from the disaster live in cramped temporary housing.

"I've been looking at the pictures on TV all day and still can't believe we lived through it," says Kaori Naiji, who gave birth to her daughter, Wakana, during the disaster. "There was a power cut and no heating, and I couldn't call anyone after my baby was born because the phones were down," she recalls. "And we didn't even know what was going on in the nuclear plant." Like many yesterday, she said she is afraid for Japan's future and wonders how it will recover.

"I look at my daughter and she embodies our hope. I want her to live in a different world," she said.

The anniversary was marked by anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo and other cities, amid the struggle to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Demonstrators formed a human chain around the Diet parliament building, while about 16,000 people gathered in Fukushima Prefecture, near the exclusion zone around the crippled complex.

At the National Theatre in central Tokyo, Emperor Akihito, who is recovering from heart surgery, stood with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and 1,200 other mourners and said prayers for the dead. The emperor said Japan must recover: "We shall never forget those who gave their lives helping others."

Eriko Okuda, who lost her parents and two children in the tsunami, tearfully told the audience that her heart ached every time she thought of what they went through. "I'm sometimes embarrassed that I survived," she said.

Mr Noda earlier pledged that the world's third largest economy would emerge stronger from the tragedy.

"Our goal is not simply to reconstruct the Japan that existed before March 11, 2011, but to build a new Japan," Mr Noda said in an advertisement published in The Washington Post yesterday. "We are determined to overcome this historic challenge."

The anniversary has been marred, however, by widespread criticism that the pace of recovery is slowing, typified by yesterday's headline in the English-language daily, The Japan Times: "A Year On, Tohoku Stuck in Limbo." Just six per cent of the 22.5 tons of debris left behind by the quake and tsunami has been cleared, held back by widespread fears that it is contaminated by fallout from the triple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Large swathes of the northeast coast still resemble wastelands and rebuilding is stalled by financial and other problems.

The nuclear meltdown and a series of explosions showered eight per cent of Japan with radioactive contamination and forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people. Recent revelations suggest the Fukushima plant narrowly avoided a worse catastrophe in the week after 11 March last year; then Prime Minister Naoto Kan stopped its managers from fleeing and abandoning its out-of-control reactors, possibly saving Tokyo.

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