IWAKI, Japan (Reuters) - With a moment of silence, prayers and anti-nuclear protests, Japan on Thursday mourned about 20,000 victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan 10 years ago, destroying towns and triggering nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.
Huge waves triggered by the 9.0-magnitude quake - one of the strongest on record - crashed into the northeastern coast, crippling the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant and forcing more than 160,000 residents to flee as radiation spewed into the air.
The world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl and the tremor have left survivors struggling to overcome the grief of losing families and towns to the waves in a few frightening hours on the afternoon of March 11, 2011.
About 50 kilometres (31 miles) south from the plant, in the gritty coastal city of Iwaki, which has since become a hub for labourers working on nuclear decommissioning, restaurant owner Atsushi Niizuma prayed to his mother killed by the waves.
"I want to tell my mother that my children, who were all close to her, are doing well. I came here to thank her that our family is living safely," said Niizuma, 47.
Before setting off for work, he quietly paid his respects at a stone monument at a seaside shrine with carvings of his mother's name, Mitsuko, and 65 others who died in the disaster.
On the day of the earthquake, Mitsuko was looking after his children. The children rushed into a car but Mitsuko was swept away by the waves as she returned to the house to grab her belongings. It took a month to recover her body, Niizuma said.
The Akiba shrine has become a symbol of resilience for the survivors, as it was barely damaged by the tsunami while houses nearby were swept away or burned down.
About two dozen residents gathered with Niizuma to decorate it with paper cranes, flowers and yellow handkerchiefs with messages of hope sent by students from across the country.
"It was sleeting 10 years ago, and it was cold. The coldness always brought me back to the memory of what happened on the day," said Hiroko Ishikawa, 62.
"But with my back soaking up the sun today, we are feeling more relaxed. It's as if the sun is telling us that 'It's okay, why don't you go talk with everyone who came back to visit their hometown?'"
REMEMBERING THE DEAD
At 2:46 p.m., exact moment the earthquake struck a decade ago, Emperor Naruhito and his wife led a moment of silence to honour the dead in a commemorative ceremony in Tokyo. Silent prayers were held across the country.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told the memorial ceremony that the loss of life was still impossible to contemplate.
"It is unbearable when I think of the feelings of all those who lost their loved ones and friends," said Suga, dressed in a black suit.
At the ceremony attended by emperor and prime minister, the attendees wore masks and kept their distance, and did not sing along with the national anthem to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
In a joint statement, Suga and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden said the two countries would continue to move forward shoulder-to-shoulder to finish the reconstruction of the region.
The Japanese government has spent about $300 billion (32.1 trillion yen) to rebuild the region, but areas around the Fukushima plant remain off-limits, worries about radiation levels linger and many who left have settled elsewhere.
Some 40,000 people are still displaced by the disaster.
Japan is again debating the role of nuclear power in its energy mix as the resource-poor country aims to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 to fight global warming. But an NHK public TV survey showed 85% of the public worries about nuclear accidents.
The work to decommission the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, deal with contaminated water and solid waste, and make the area safe is immense, as critics say it could take up to a century to return the plant to a usable state.
About 5,000 workers pass through gates each day to work on dismantling the crippled plant, which still has about 880 tonnes of melted fuel debris in its reactors.
The mass demonstrations against nuclear power seen in the wake of 3/11 have faded, but distrust lingers. Some protesters held an antinuclear rally in front of the headquarters of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power on Thursday night.
In Fukushima, fireworks lit up night sky to connect to the souls of the victims and pray for a bright future.
"Watching the fireworks, I felt like we're taking another new step towards recovery," said Hiroshi Yokoyama, 56, a school teacher from the Fukushima town of Namie who lost his parents and home to the tsunami.
"I don't think it will ever go back to the way it used to be.. but I am looking forward to what sort of new approaches there will be to revitalize the town."
(Reporting by Eimi Yamamitsu, Elaine Lies, Kim Kyung Hoon, Irene Wang, Sakura Murakami, Antoni Slodkowski, Ju-min Park and Linda Sieg; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Hugh Lawson)