3.11 EXPLORING FUKUSHIMA: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that documented the 13th anniversary of the "Great East Japan Earthquake," tsunami, and nuclear accident, including the conditions of both the people and places that remain affected by the disaster across the Tōhoku region. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima

Japan marked the 13th anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear meltdown and left large parts of Fukushima prefecture uninhabitable on March 11 with a minute of silence and memorial events, where officials pledged continued support for rebuilding.

The 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami that ravaged parts of Japan’s northeastern coast on March 11, 2011 killed about 20,000 people and drove thousands from their homes in the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima.

At 14:46 — the time when the earthquake struck — people across Japan stopped to observe a minute of silence. In Tokyo’s central Ginza shopping district, people stopped to pray on the sidewalk as a bell rang out, marking the moment.

In the town of Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture, a team of 10 uniformed police officers sifted through gravel and sand on the beach in an annual search for the remains of people who are still missing.

Survivors prayed by the bare girders that used to be the town’s disaster prevention center, where dozens died. In the town of Natori, about 400 people prayed and released balloons carrying messages of grief.

In Ishinomaki City in Iwate prefecture, residents gathered in a hilltop park where many of them took shelter 13 years ago, mourning as they stood facing the sea. In Rikuzentakata, about 100 people prayed atop a massive concrete seawall.

And at a ceremony in Fukushima prefecture, where some 20,000 people still cannot return to their homes because of radiation, Governor Masao Uchibori vowed that rebuilding would continue as the decades-long work of cleaning up the nuclear site continued.

“We will not give up,” he said. “I pledge in front of the quake and tsunami victims that we will accomplish recovery at any cost.”

A wall of water over 50 feet tall slammed into the coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, destroying its power supply and cooling systems, triggering meltdowns in three of its six reactors, and spewing radiation across the surrounding areas.

The disaster initially forced more than 160,000 people to leave their homes. Work to remove highly radioactive melted fuel debris has still not begun at the plant, and the overall decommissioning project is expected to last decades.

At the ceremony in Fukushima, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida renewed a pledge that the government would help secure jobs, livelihoods, and the safe decommissioning of the plant so the former residents could return home.

“We will continue to do utmost for the full-fledged recovery and rebirth, as well as the recovery of the northeastern region,” he said.

Most deaths from the tsunami and earthquake took place in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, north of Fukushima, but they have been able to recover faster because they were not exposed to nuclear waste.

The reconstruction of roads, seawalls, and other infrastructure has been largely completed in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, but many former residents have not returned due to the loss of communities.

This year’s memorial events also remembered victims of the devastating quake that struck Japan’s north-central region of Noto on January 1, which triggered renewed calls for a review of evacuation plans nationwide, including around nuclear plants.

Kishida later told reporters the government would work to ensure the ruined Fukushima Daiichi plant was decommissioned safely and transparently, citing recent mishaps including a contaminated water leak within the plant complex.

In a step the government and TEPCO said was crucial for decommissioning, the plant started releasing treated radioactive wastewater into the sea last August. The controversial discharges have faced protests by local fishers and neighboring countries — especially China, which has banned Japanese seafood imports.

National memorial services have not been held in Tokyo since the 10th anniversary. Affected municipalities in the disaster-hit areas now individually host local services each year.

3.11 Exploring Fukushima

Mari Yamaguchi and MI Staff (Japan)

David Guttenfelder (AP), Eugene Hoshiko (AP), Kyodo News (via AP), and Fly&Dive (via Shutterstock)

3.11 Exploring Fukushima: The Tōhoku region of Japan experienced one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded when a powerful earthquake was followed by a massive tsunami, and triggered an unprecedented nuclear crisis in 2011. With a personal connection to the tragedies, Milwaukee Independent returned for the first time in 13 years to attend events commemorating the March 11 anniversary. The purpose of the journalism project included interviews with survivors about their challenges over the past decade, reviews of rebuilt cities that had been washed away by the ocean, and visits to newly opened areas that had been left barren by radiation. This special editorial series offers a detailed look at a situation that will continue to have a daily global impact for generations. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima