Japan on Friday quietly commemorated the triple disaster of March 11, 2011, when one of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded in the world caused a deadly tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
For the first time, no national ceremony was organized this year in memory of the victims, the Japanese State having decided to cease these commemorations after the 10 years of the tragedy last year.
But like every March 11, a minute of silence was observed in the country at 2:46 p.m. (05:46 GMT), the time at which, in 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the entire archipelago and was felt ‘in China.
Coming from the depths of the basement of the Pacific Ocean, off the northeast coast of Japan, the terrible tremor caused a tsunami whose waves, sometimes as high as buildings, fell on the region.
The heavy human toll of nearly 18,500 dead or missing was mainly caused by the tsunami.
People pray at sunrise by the Pacific Ocean in Sendai (northeastern Japan), in memory of the victims of the tsunami of March 11, 2011, 11 years later to the day / © JIJI PRESS/AFP
In the areas devastated by the tidal wave, relatives of victims gathered at the edge of the ocean, sometimes at dawn, to gather together as they do every year.
Students also flew kites painted with messages of hope, perched on new giant dykes built near the coast, supposed to avoid a disaster of such magnitude in the future, according to images filmed by Japanese television.
But some prefer to avoid these commemorations to try to bury their suffering, like Sadao Kon, a local fisherman whose sister, brother-in-law, and nephew were swept away by the tsunami.
A woman in Tokyo prays in memory of the victims of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, 11 years to the day after the disaster, March 11, 2022 / © AFP
“I intentionally try not to particularly mark this day. It’s a painful memory that I would like to forget if I could,” the 68-year-old told state broadcaster NHK.
– Endless challenges in Fukushima –
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 / © AFP
Eleven years ago, the raging waves also invaded the Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant, bordering the Pacific. The cores of three of its reactors went into meltdown, causing the worst civil nuclear disaster since Chernobyl (Ukraine) in 1986.
This accident led to radioactive leaks that forced tens of thousands of residents of the surrounding areas to urgently evacuate their homes, often permanently.
More than 1,650 km2 of the department of Fukushima, or 12% of its area, had been banned from access in the months following the disaster. Since then, intense decontamination work has reduced these uninhabitable areas to 337 km2, or 2.4% of the department.
All the municipalities that had been evacuated have now found inhabitants: since January of this year, Futaba, the last locality near the plant which was still deserted, has welcomed five of its former residents.
But their populations remain far below pre-disaster levels, with many former residents unwilling to return for fear of radiation.
Up to nearly 165,000 people in the department had evacuated their homes, either by obligation or by personal choice. Local authorities still count 33,365 displaced people today, 80% of whom live outside the department of Fukushima.
Buildings of reactor 3 (g) and 4 (c) and contaminated water tanks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 5, 2022, in Okuma, Japan / © AFP
In addition to the titanic project of decontamination and dismantling of the nuclear power plant, many other challenges persist, starting with the reputation of local food products, although their safety is rigorously controlled.
The image of Fukushima is also likely to suffer from the project, validated last year by the Japanese government, to discharge into the ocean more than a million tons of contaminated water from the devastating nuclear power plant and still containing tritium.
Although this process supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should be spread over decades, to avoid releasing too suddenly in the ocean high concentrations of this radionuclide, the project raised indignation from neighboring countries of Japan and local fishermen.
A man prays alone in front of a memorial to the victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami in Namie, Fukushima prefecture, 11 years later to the day / © JIJI PRESS/AFP
Beyond those directly affected, the memory of the 2011 tragedy is fading in Japan, according to polls, although the Russian invasion of Ukraine has revived the specter of a nuclear disaster in recent weeks.