Japan Remembers Quake, Faces Time-Consuming Recovery

Japan’s Emperor led calls for Japan to emerge stronger from the earthquake and tsunami that left 19,000 people dead or missing a year ago, amid warnings from business leaders that reconstruction efforts are too slow.

Japan should “build a country where people can live safely,” Emperor Akihito said during a speech at the National Theater in Tokyo yesterday. The ceremony, one of hundreds taking place to mark the anniversary of the disaster, was attended by 1,200 people including Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and families from the devastated Pacific coastline.

Twelve months after the magnitude-9 earthquake, more than 340,000 people are still living in temporary homes after a tsunami as high as 39 meters (128 feet) washed away entire towns and crippled a nuclear power plant. Only 6 percent of the 22.5 million tons of debris left by the water has been cleared, while money allocated for reconstruction remains unspent due to bureaucratic red-tape. Support for the government is slumping.

“The government’s activities haven’t progressed as fast as we had hoped,” Yasuchika Hasegawa, head of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives and chief executive officer of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., said yesterday at a symposium organized by the lobby group in Sendai, north of Tokyo. “The recovery agency was only fully established last month, 11 months after the disaster. I feel the recovery will be a very long, time-consuming process.”

The disaster put the spotlight on Japan’s reliance on nuclear power. The country may face an energy shortage of about 10 percent this summer without nuclear power, Noda said in a press conference yesterday shown on national broadcaster NHK. The government is still considering plans to deal with the shortage, he said.

Exile From Fukushima

In Fukushima, where three reactors melted down at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, residents face decades away from their homes while the area is decontaminated.

The population of Fukushima prefecture may already have fallen to 1.92 million from 2.02 million before March 11, and could halve in the next 30 years, Hironori Saito, vice chairman for the Fukushima Economic Research Institute, said at the symposium in Sendai yesterday.

“This nuclear accident has had a tremendous impact on agriculture, fisheries and tourism businesses,” Saito said. “The big issue is how Fukushima’s population will change. More than 160,000 people are unable to go back to their hometowns.”

Less than half of eligible households have applied for compensation from Tokyo Electric because forms are too difficult to understand, according to a survey by the government-backed Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund.

‘Forever Etched’

“The day of March 11th is forever etched on the hearts and minds of every Tepco employee,” Toshio Nishizawa, president of Tokyo Electric, said in a statement yesterday. “All Tepco group companies will further intensify their efforts to care for the presently afflicted and provide the compensation due them in a swift manner.”

About 30,000 people gathered in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park for a one-minute silence at the “Peace on Earth” event, which included celebrities such as Oscar-winning musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, organizers said. People listened to live music and signed a petition to urge the government to abandon nuclear power.

Only two of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors remain online following the accident in Fukushima, with the last scheduled to be turned off for maintenance next month. Japan hasn’t decided how to cut its nuclear dependence, Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano said last week.

Debris Disposal

Radiation fears are also hampering tsunami-hit regions outside Fukushima. Residents around the country are blocking the transportation and disposal of debris in their prefectures due to potential contamination, preventing progress on reconstruction, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives said in a statement.

In Ishinomaki city, the 6 million tons of debris is equivalent to about 120 years of its processing capacity.

The government plans to ask every prefecture, with the exception of three in the disaster-hit Tohoku region, to accept debris from the tsunami, Prime Minister Noda said yesterday.

Public support is below 20 percent for both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party, a poll from NHK shows. The figures slid after the two focused on leadership and election-timing battles instead of cooperating on the post-quake recovery and food-safety standards.

DPJ support last month was at 17.6 percent, the first time below 20 percent since the party formed in 1998, while the LDP’s stood at 16.9 percent, according to a Feb. 10-13 NHK poll. Levels have stayed below 20 percent since December. About half of those polled said they don’t back any party.

Robust Towns

Towns and cities in Tohoku may be making a mistake by rebuilding in a way that ignores the risk of tsunami, Sakamoto said in an interview at the “Peace on Earth” event in Tokyo.

“We have to build more robust towns,” he said. “We can’t bring them back to the shape they had before but we have to think of a new way of building towns, new projects of reconstruction that can adapt to the 21st century.”

Elsewhere in the capital, train services in Tokyo halted temporarily to mark the anniversary. Tokyu Corp., which operates bus and train services mainly in southwest Tokyo and Kanagawa prefecture, said it increased a planned stop to 4 minutes from 1 minute to allow passengers time for “silent prayers.”

Emperor Akihito called for Japan’s attention to remain on the devastated region, to aid recovery efforts.

“It is my hope that the nation’s people will continue to keep those affected by this disaster in their hearts as we endeavor to improve conditions in the disaster zone,” he said.