Country mourns disaster victims on anniversary of quake and tsunami
Time may be the great healer but for the people of Japan a year is too short a span to ease the pain and suffering.
Japan on Sunday solemnly marked one year since the 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the country unleashing a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and triggered an enduring nuclear crisis. The quake was the most powerful in Japan since records began.
More than 3,000 people remain missing. The mass of black churning water washed away anything in its path, towns, schools and people. Parents still search every day for the bodies of their children.
An area equivalent to the size of Brussels is contaminated with radiation and a vast part of northern Japan has been reduced to ghost towns.
Many families still live in temporary accommodation, unable to return to wastelands they used to call home.
People across Japan paused for a minute's silence at the time the quake hit a year ago, 2:46 pm.
In the city of Yokohama, 27 kilometers from the capital Tokyo and home to one of Asia's largest Chinese communities, the day the buildings started to sway like giant metronomes has left an indelible imprint on people's minds.
Zheng Feng runs a tea shop at a busy junction in Yokohama that is home to about 10,000 Chinese people who live or work in this busy port city.
"My heart started beating so fast," said Zheng, 46, who is originally from Fuzhou, Fujian province. "At first I wasn't that scared, but when the second tremor hit I was frightened," she told China Daily.
"The buildings started swaying. The ground was shaking. I was scared for my son. It was a massive quake."
Xianglin Hua, 32, sells baozi across from the traditional Chinese gate that marks the entrance to Chinatown. Hua moved to Japan 10 years ago from Nanjing to start his business.
"The whole street started shaking. It was very intense. Many of the tourists were scared and didn't know what to do. People were looking around, confused. It lasted a long time."Yamada Toshtaka, who works as a chef in the Suisen Shoka Chinese restaurant, went to nearby Tokyo Bay to take photos of the rising waves as soon as the quake stopped.
No one then realized that the earthquake that shook the seabed 64 kilometers off the coast was so intense that the Earth's axis shifted 10 cm and some northern coastal communities were about to be swept away within the hour.
"We were very lucky here. At the time I went to the bay not thinking about my safety. But when I saw the images on TV of what happened I was shocked and deeply saddened for all the people who lost their lives and for their relatives and friends. Everyone felt united in grief ."
The tsunami that followed the quake devoured everything in its path.
TV images of homes being carried on a tide of debris, cars being tossed around, communities engulfed, were seared on people's minds.
In the coastal town of Onagawa, some 100 Chinese workers, employed as seafood packers, survived thanks to the help of locals, and one man especially. Many of the town's 10,000 residents lost their lives.
The bravery of Mitsuru Sato will never be forgotten by those whose lives he saved. When the tsunami alarm sounded the Chinese workers ran out of their dormitory and Sato took them to higher ground.
Once he was satisfied that they were safe, he ran back for his wife and daughter. But the tsunami devoured his home before he could escape.
China was one of the first countries to send a rescue team to Iwate prefecture, one of the worst hit by the tsunami, and sent $4.5 million worth of aid. Relief supplies, including blankets, torches, tents and 10 tons of bottled drinking water followed.
At the main memorial ceremony in Tokyo's National Theater, Emperor Akihito, who is recovering from heart bypass surgery performed just three weeks ago, thanked the international community for their help during the crisis.
Standing next to Empress Michiko, who was wearing a black kimono, he walked slowly on to the stage adorned with white chrysanthemums and bowed deeply in front of the altar.
He spoke slowly and strongly for seven minutes, thanking those who helped.
"I would like to express my deep gratitude to people who toiled for victims and for disaster-hit areas and to people who have worked to cope with the nuclear accident."
His words were echoed in a statement by Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. "We will not forget the loved ones, friends and colleagues who were lost due to the disaster. Neither will we forget the outpouring of support and expressions of solidarity that Japan received from the international community. For this we feel deeply indebted and I take this opportunity to reiterate Japan's heartfelt appreciation."
Across Tokyo, the appearance of the frail emperor so soon after surgery will not be lost on people still struggling to cope, amid fears for the future, with issues like radiation, food safety, energy and rebuilding lives and homes.
Zhang Yimi, 31, originally from Jilin province, was among the many who hid under office desks in Tokyo a year ago as buildings trembled.
"We were all used to earthquakes, but what happened was terrible. My whole desk and computer moved across the office while I was under it.
"It was painful to see what was taking place with the nuclear situation and what might happen in the future."
Back in Yokohama, where tourists stream past scores of Chinese restaurants and gift shops, many felt the same.
At a crossroads near the subway station an old Japanese proverb hangs from a wall. It reads: Disasters happen as soon as we forget.
Lest we forget.
Todd Balazovic contributed to this story.
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