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Japan marks tsunami anniversary, no govt memorial amid virus

TOKYO – Some residents along the Japanese northern coast stood on roadsides overlooking the sea, offering silent prayers for their loved ones lost in a massive earthquake and tsunami nine years ago Wednesday. But in Tokyo and many other places around Japan, the day was being remembered without a main government ceremony due to the coronavirus outbreak.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated large swaths of Japan's northern coast and triggered a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, contaminating large areas and dislocating many residents.

For the past eight years, residents and officials have gathered at local town halls to pray, while in Tokyo, the government held a main memorial attended by the Imperial Family members, televised live nationwide. This year, memorial events have been called off following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's request to cancel, postpone or downsize gatherings as part of measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

In Tokyo, Abe and his ministers gathered at the Prime Minister's Office and offered a silent prayer at 2:46 p.m., the moment the offshore earthquake struck nine years ago. At the outset of his speech, Abe apologized over the cancellation of the government ceremony. Japan has confirmed more than 1,200 cases of the coronavirus, including 696 from a cruise ship and 19 deaths.

Abe said reconstruction of the disaster hit areas is now “at its finishing stage."

“I would like many people from around the world to experience the reality of the disaster-hit areas on their way to recovery through upcoming Olympics, Paralympics and other occasions," Abe said. His government has said the 10th anniversary next year will be the last it will organize.

Many residents, however, especially those in Fukushima, are far from recovery. The two towns that are home to the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant are still off-limits and unlivable, while many residents in the surrounding areas had to provide their land to build facilities to store nuclear waste for decades-long storage.

The quake and tsunami left more than 18,000 people dead and destroyed many houses and businesses. The meltdown at the Fukushima plant sent more than 160,000 people fleeing the region. More than 40,000 are still unable to return home due to radiation contamination and concerns.

In disaster-hit towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, desks were put out for visitors to sign messages and lay flowers. Residents visiting their family graveyard, parks and towns all stopped, bowed and prayed in silence.

Hundreds of people gathered at Tokyo's Hibiya Park to mark the anniversary with musical performances. In Tokyo's posh shopping district of Ginza, pedestrians and visitors, many of them wearing face masks, stopped at an intersection of a clock tower and bowed in silence.

Kiminari Suzuki, a 44-year-old evacuee from Fukushima who was at the memorial event at the park, said he feels that the community of disaster-hit residents is shrinking and the memories are fading nine years after the disaster.

“I came here because I had nowhere else to go to share our feelings," said Suzuki, who had to abandon his damaged home and move into a shelter before ending up in Tokyo recently.

“The time has still frozen at that moment when the quake hit, and I often think of the nuclear power problem," he said. “My life still hasn't returned to normal, and I wonder if it's because of the disaster or because of my own fault.”

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Associated Press videojournalists Emily Wang and Haruka Nuga contributed to this report.

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