03/12/2012, 00.00
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Japan remembers its 19,000 tsunami victims

The country halts on Sunday for a minute of silence. A memorial is inaugurated in Tokyo for the victims. Some 16,000 people protest against nuclear power, demand compensation for victims.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/ Agencies) - At 2.46 pm, Japan paused for a minute of silence to remember the 19,000 people who died on 11 March 2011 as a result of a chain of events that began with an earthquake and ended with a tsunami crashing on towns and villages in the northern prefectures of Sendai, Miyagi and Fukushima.

In Tokyo, the authorities inaugurated a memorial for the victims. Torch-lit prayers were held in the country's main cities. At the main memorial ceremony held at Tokyo's National Theatre, Japan's Emperor Akihito spoke about the tragedy, reminding everyone that survivors still live in difficult conditions, especially as a consequence of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

He urged his compatriots to "join their hearts with the people affected by the disasters, and continue to help them to improve their lives".

One year on, more than 340,000 people are still living in temporary housing. An estimated 160,000 people were forced to evacuate a 20-km exclusion zone.

Housed in shelters or with friends and family, survivors are still waiting a year on for compensation from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operated the plant.

Experts estimate that it will take 40 years to cleanse this vast area. Residents are left fearing of what the future has in store for them. Hundreds of families were forced to leave home and lost jobs and are hard pressed to survive on government aid.

Around 16,000 people gathered at a baseball stadium in Koriyama, about 60 kilometres from the plant. Participants called for an end to nuclear energy in Japan and compensation for victims.

A group of Buddhist monks chanted sutras as activists carried banners reading, "We never forget the March 11 Great Earthquake. We will never forgive the nuclear accident."

For experts, Japan's world economic crisis will affect the speed of reconstruction. The situation is such that many young people have had to leave their family to seek work in Tokyo and Osaka.

In the cities of Sendai and Miyagi, reconstruction is already underway. In towns and villages in the Tohoku region along the north-eastern coast of Japan, such as Ishinomaki, Ofunato and Minamisanriku most of the physical reminders of what happened are gone. The mountains of rubble, crushed cars, overturned fishing boats and scores of unrecognisable debris have largely been taken away.  However, large areas of these towns still lay flat and barren.

At present, the government is pondering ways to rebuild the affected towns and villages. Plans are to move them beyond the reach of future tsunamis, but funds and logistical problems have hampered the start of the work.

Timothy To Wing Chin, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Post Crisis Counselling Network, said that many survivors are facing post-traumatic stress disorder. Many fear that they have no future and that they will live in temporary housing forever.

At the same time, the suicide rates have skyrocketed in disaster struck regions, once reaching a record high of more than 3,400 suicides a month.

Yet, life is getting back to normal in many communities thanks to the work of volunteers and donations from Japan and the rest of the world.

For example, the tsunami wiped out the village of Utatsu (Motoyoshi District, Miyagi), but five families restarted their businesses in an old car park. In other villages, used car dealerships were the first to reopen, serving a critical immediate need.

British teacher Jamie El-Banna founded a non-profit organisation called 'It's Not Just Mud' that is helping to repair housing in Tohoku.

Volunteers have put in 20,000 person-hours of labour and repaired dozens of properties, El-Banna estimates, including a home for the elderly.

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