OFUNATO, Japan (Reuters) - With a moment of silence, prayers and anti-nuclear rallies, Japan marked on Sunday one year since an earthquake and tsunami killed thousands and set off a radiation crisis that shattered public trust in atomic power and the nation’s leaders.
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake unleashed a wall of water that hit Japan’s northeast coast, killing nearly 16,000 and leaving nearly 3,300 unaccounted for. The country is still grappling with the human, economic and political costs.
In the port town of Ofunato, hundreds of black-clad residents gathered to lay white chrysanthemums in memory of the town’s 420 dead and missing.
“We can’t just stay sad. Our mission is to face reality and move forward step by step,” said Kosei Chiba, 46, who lost his mother and wife in the disaster.
“But the damage the town suffered was too big and our psychological scars are too deep. We need a long time to rebuild.”
The country observed a minute of silence at 2:46 p.m. (0546 GMT), the time the quake struck.
Residents of Ofunato gathered before a makeshift altar with a calm, sun-flecked sea behind them. Ofunato paused again 33 minutes later -- the time when a year ago a 23-metre (75-foot) tsunami engulfed the town of 41,000.
Just a kilometer (half a mile) from Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco) wrecked Fukushima plant, where reactor meltdowns triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, residents of the abandoned town of Okuma were allowed back for just a few hours to honor the dead.
“It was a wonderful place. If it wasn’t for all that has happened, I’d be able to come back. But thanks to Tepco, I wasn’t even able to search for the bodies of my relatives,” said Tomoe Kimura, 93, who lost four members of her family in the tsunami, two of whom were never found.
Authorities have imposed a 20-km (12 mile) no-go zone around the plant and residents may never be allowed back.
“My home is in Namie town, so we can’t go home,” said Katsuko Ishii, who had to flee from the exclusion zone.
“There are really no words for it,” said Ishii, attending a memorial service with her 3-year-old daughter in Iwaki City, Fukushima prefecture.
Along the northeast coast, police and coastguard officers, urged on by families of the missing, continue their dogged search for remains despite diminishing chances of finding any.
The prevailing mood in tsunami-hit communities was one of solemn reflection and resolve to move on despite frustration with the confused official response and slow pace of rebuilding.
In contrast, those who felt betrayed by Japan’s “nuclear village” -- the powerful nexus of utilities, politicians and bureaucrats that promoted nuclear power as clean and safe -- were less forgiving.
“We are angry at Tepco and came here to show our anger,” said Tomoe Suzuki, 65, a restaurant owner and chef.
“The earthquake was something that was unavoidable because it was a natural disaster, but you can’t stay quiet about Fukushima because it’s a man-made disaster,” she said, marching with about 12,000 other protesters to form a “human chain” around the parliament building in the capital city Tokyo.
The protest was one of several around the country including in Koriyama City in Fukushima prefecture, where some 16,000 people gathered to express their pain and anger, and call for the scrapping of all Japan’s reactors. Before the disasters they accounted for 30 percent of the country’s electricity supply, but most have since been shut down for checks and maintenance.
The Japanese people earned the world’s admiration for their composure, discipline and resilience in the face of the disaster, while its companies impressed with the speed with which they bounced back.
As a result, the $5 trillion economy looks set to return to pre-disaster levels in coming months with the help of about $230 billion earmarked for a decade-long rebuilding effort agreed in rare cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties.
Emperor Akihito, recovering from coronary bypass surgery last month, attended a memorial service in Tokyo’s National Theatre and urged people to work together, echoing his unprecedented televised address five days after the disaster.
“I hope all the people will keep the victims in their hearts and work so that the situation in the disaster-hit areas improves,” the 78-year-old monarch said.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who took over in September from Naoto Kan -- who was premier at the time the disasters struck -- pledged to work for recovery:
“Our forebears who built this country’s prosperity have emerged from each crisis even stronger. We will fulfill our historic mission of realizing the rebirth of this nation.”
Yet many people are increasingly disillusioned about the political establishment’s ability to tell the truth and rise to the occasion, a deep lack of trust that one commentator called “the fourth disaster of March 11”.
Politicians and bureaucrats drew fire for the chaotic response to the Fukushima disaster and disappointed many with their failure to seize the moment to tackle the ills which have plagued Japan for over two decades.
After a brief truce, parliamentary squabbles resumed, giving Japan its sixth leader in five years and now threatening to block an important tax reform and stall other business, including the launch of a more independent nuclear watchdog.
Tepco, criticized by many for its failure to prepare for the disaster, issued a fresh apology.
“Each and every member of our company and its group remembers March 11 and will work with our all hearts to solve challenges with safety as our first priority,” Tepco President Toshio Nishizawa, who marked the anniversary at the plant, said in a statement.
Slow progress in drawing up plans for the tsunami-damaged and radiation-contaminated region is deepening the misery of survivors, about 326,000 of whom are still homeless, including 80,000 evacuated from the vicinity of the Fukushima plant.
While the government declared it had reached “cold shutdown” in December, the nation lives under a cloud of anxiety over the long-term health effects of radiation. It also faces the huge financial burden of dismantling the plant and cleaning up an area the size of Luxembourg -- a task that will take decades and technologies yet to be developed.
Taxpayers, who face proposed sales tax increases to help fund the country’s debt, will also need to pay tens of billions of dollars to prop up the still politically powerful Tepco.
($1 = 81.4000 yen)
Additional reporting by Chris Meyers in Okuma, Yuriko Nakao in Koriyama City and Antoni Slodkowski and Taiga Uranaka in Tokyo; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Linda Sieg, Robert Birsel, Daniel Magnowski