With the ringing of bells and bowing of heads Monday afternoon, Japan marked the passage of a month since the deadliest earthquake and tsunami in its modern history. Buddhist monks at the Tsukiji Hongwanji temple in Tokyo struck their bells at 2:46 p.m., the time the March 11 earthquake struck off Japan’s northern coast.
The magnitude-9 quake sent walls of water slamming into the country’s Pacific shores, sweeping away whole villages and leaving more than 27,000 dead or missing.
In Youriso, a fishing village north of the quakes epicenter, Japanese troops stopped their ongoing search for bodies, took off their hats and safety helmets and bowed their heads to observe a nationwide minute of silence. Of the town’s population of 400, 12 died in the tsunami and 150 remain in shelters. “I recalled the relatives I lost in the tsunami,” one woman, Fusako Endo, told CNN. “I had all those people washed away in my mind when we all stopped.”
As of Monday afternoon, the death toll from the disaster stood at 13,127, according to Japan’s National Police Agency. Another 14,348 remained missing, and 4,793 were injured.
“Even after a month, I still cry when I watch the news,” said Marina Seito, 19, a student at a junior college who recalled being in a basement restaurant in Sendai when the original 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit on March 11. Plates fell and parts of the ceiling crashed down around her. (CBC)
“My chest has been ripped open by the suffering and pain that this disaster has caused the people of our prefecture,” said Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima, which saw its coastal areas devastated by the tsunami and is home to the damaged plant at the centre of the nuclear crisis. “I have no words to express my sorrow.” (CBC)
In the industrial town of Kamaishi, Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso led a moment of commemoration as a loud siren rang through a high school gymnasium being used as a shelter. He bowed while people who have lived their since the tsunami kneeled on makeshift futons, bowed their heads and clasped their hands. The school’s students will return to classes Tuesday, even though 129 people are living in their gym. Some, like 16-year-old Keisuke Shirato, wore their baseball uniforms for Monday’s ceremony. Shirato’s family was not affected by the tsunami, but half of his teammates lost their homes. “A new school year starts tomorrow,” Shirato said. “Hopefully that will help give people hope and allow them to look toward a new start.” (CBC)
In addition, at least two deaths and 283 injuries have been blamed on an aftershock, a magnitude-7.1 tremor that rattled the islands Thursday night. Japanese troops launched an extensive search for more victims in the coastal prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima over the weekend.
On Monday, another powerful earthquake – followed by a series of smaller quakes – rocked northeastern Japan.
A 16-year-old girl has been killed. Authorities say the latest earthquake collapsed the girl’s house in Iwaki. Three houses collapsed and up to seven people were believed trapped inside. Police said a girl was found dead inside, and three other people were rescued. Their condition, and the fat of the others, was not immediately known.
The jolt from the magnitude-6.6 quake was felt in Tokyo, about 164 kilometers (101 miles) away, or about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
In addition to the devastation that the March 11 disaster unleashed, it also knocked out power to the crippled plant – triggering a crisis that Japanese authorities have yet to resolve. Two explosions, a fire and the continuous pumping of water into the reactors have spread radioactive particles over a wide area of the land and sea surrounding the plant. Everyone within a 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) radius of the plant was ordered to evacuate, and those living between 20 and 30 kilometers were told to stay indoors.
Both the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the plant’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, have faced increasing questions over their handling of the disaster but can’t say at this point when they expect to bring it to an end.
Japan’s government marked the one-month period by putting an ad in newspapers in China, South Korea, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States – a letter from Prime Minister Naoto Kan thanking people for the outpouring of support that followed the tsunami. The Red Cross alone said it has collected $102 million Cdn from overseas. “Through our own efforts and with the help of the global community, Japan will recover and come back even stronger,” he said “We will then repay you for your generous aid… With this in our hearts, we now stand together dedicated to rebuilding the nation.” (BBC)
Kan described the outpouring as “kizuna,” the bond of friendship. “We deeply appreciate the kizuna our friends from around the world have shown and I want to thank every nation, entity, and you personally, from the bottom of my heart.” (CBC)
Video taken by a pair of freelance journalists in the town of Futaba, about 3 kilometers away, showed stray dogs wandering the streets – and one, horrifyingly, still chained. The photographers, Shuji Ogawa and Naomi Toyoda, gave some of their food to the animal before leaving.
Some of the dozens of Futaba residents now living in a shelter in Kozo, north of Tokyo, watched the video and came away convinced they would never return to their hometown again. Nobuyuki Araki was roused to anger when he saw a Tokyo Electric sign touting the “bright future” of nuclear power. “That sign was a lie,” Araki said. “For the last 40 years, TEPCO has only been saying nuclear power is safe, that there’s no chance of a meltdown. We – the people of Futaba – feel we’ve all been betrayed.” (CNN)
But at a news conference Monday, Yukio Edano, Kan’s chief Cabinet secretary and the government’s point man on the crisis, defended authorities’ performance over the past month. “I believe we have done our utmost under the current system in supporting the victims of the earthquake, as well as handling the nuclear power plant situation,” Edano said. “However, we must not forget people are still suffering, and we must realize what they are going through.” (CNN)
Edano said the new evacuations would take place over the coming month, from areas including Iitate village, which lies 40 km from the power station, and part of the city of Kawamata. “This is not an emergency measure that people have to evacuate immediately,” he told a news conference, but added that there were concerns about long-term health risks. (BBC)
During a visit to Fukushima on Monday, TEPCO chief Masataka Shimizu apologized for the nuclear accident. The people who live near the plant are “suffering physically and mentally due to the nuclear radiation leak accident,” he said. “We sincerely apologize for this,” he said. (BBC)
“I would like to deeply apologize again for causing physical and psychological hardships to people of Fukushima prefecture and near the nuclear plant,” said the grim-faced Shimizu. (Reuters)
A nuclear safety official said repeated strong aftershocks were slowing work at the plant, and said that if one of them were to spawn a tsunami, the complex would be just as vulnerable as on March 11. “At the moment, no tsunami resistance has been added to the plant. At the moment, there is nothing we can do about it,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. (CBC)
Using emergency pumps to cool the nuclear fuel rods within the reactors and in spent-fuel pools above the reactors has been a top priority for TEPCO since March 11, since that tsunami damaged the reactors’ usual circulation systems. But Monday’s aftershock appeared to have exposed a big vulnerability in that approach.
The backup power and pumping systems that have been brought to the plant since March 11, including emergency diesel generators, fire trucks on standby and other generator trucks – all require workers to operate them manually, according to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. That makes them useless when workers must evacuate away from the reactors.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Saftey Agency, Japan’s nuclear watchdog, acknowledged the lack of an automatic backup power supply, but did not offer any solutions.
Meanwhile, pumping hundreds of tons of water a day into the reactors has produced harmful runoff of highly contaminated water, some of which leaked into the Pacific Ocean earlier this month. Plant workers have now plugged that leak and are capturing the runoff in various storage tanks at the plant. However, as the tanks fill up, TEPCO has had to release lower-level radioactive water into the ocean to make room.