Japan is marking a month since a 9.0 magnitude undersea quake sent a powerful tsunami crashing into its coast, devastating entire towns and sparking the worst nuclear emergency in 25 years.
People across the country were expected to pause at 2:46pm, local time, the moment Japan’s biggest ever recorded earthquake struck, setting off a chain of events that has left workers scrambling to tame problems in atomic reactors.
With around 13,000 people known to have died and 15,000 still officially listed as missing, it is the worst tragedy to envelop the country since World War II.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, promised on Sunday he would “never abandon” survivors, as he tried to focus attention on the future, despite the continuing high-stakes battle at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Kan, on only his second trip to the disaster zone in the month since the March 11 tragedy, said the government would “work as fast as possible” to house the more than 150,000 people still living in emergency shelters.
“The government will give all its strength to work with you. We will never abandon you,” Kan told listeners to a radio station in hard-hit Ishinomaki city after witnessing the devastation wreaked by the 9.0-magnitude quake and the massive tsunami it spawned.
Proposals to lift the long shadow cast by Japan’s disasters emerged elsewhere on Sunday.
Tokyo’s city governor, who was re-elected yesterday, said the city would bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics as part of efforts to boost recovery.
Shintaro Ishihara said Tokyo – which lost out to Rio de Janeiro in the race to host the 2016 Olympics – “can start raising our hand now” for the games.
“If we will work hard with hopes for nine years ahead, it will be a big catalyst for our country’s reconstruction and revival,” he said.
Around 250km north of Tokyo, the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl dragged on, with workers who are trying to cool overheating reactors continuing to face the threat of exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.
On Sunday one man was taken to hospital after complaining of feeling sick, the plant’s operator said.
“A subcontractor, a man in his 30s, complained that he was feeling unwell at around 11:10,” said a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO). “He was conscious but somewhat wobbly. He could walk if assisted.
“He was transferred to a hospital. The cause of his sickness is not yet known.”
Engineers who last week sealed a leak spewing highly contaminated water into the sea began installing a “silt curtain” to try to prevent radioactive mud from spreading around the ocean.
But at the same time, TEPCO is deliberately dumping more than 10,000 tonnes of mildly radioactive water into the ocean to free up urgently needed storage space for highly toxic liquid.
A report on Sunday said a high level of caesium had been found in the sand lance, or konago, fish caught in Fukushima prefecture, where the stricken nuclear plant is located.
Officials found radiation measuring 570 becquerels per kilogram in a sample caught on Thursday. The legal limit is 500.
Previously, higher than permitted levels of radioactive iodine had been found in the fish, but caesium has a much longer half-life.
However, a voluntary halt to commercial fishing of the species in the area means the fish would not have made it to market.
Kan’s visit came as 22,000 troops engaged in an intensive land and sea search for bodies along Japan’s northern Pacific coast.
“In onshore areas, we are searching under debris and in flooded areas,” a spokeswoman for the Ground Self Defence Forces said.
“We have (helicopters and planes) flying above the coastal areas, river mouths and large flood zones.”
The prime minister is expected to hold a press conference today in Tokyo.
He will urge Japanese to avoid “excessive self-restraint”, Jiji Press reported, amid repeated calls for seasonal “hanami” – alcohol-fuelled cherry blossom viewing – parties to be toned down.
Kan is worried that “stagnation in consumer spending caused by excessive self-restraint would be detrimental to the Japanese economy and reconstruction efforts in disaster-hit areas,” Jiji reported, citing an unnamed official.