Japan’s royal couple visit tsunami zone

Japan’s royal couple have made their first visit to the country’s tsunami-ravaged northeast coast to comfort thousands of survivors still huddling in evacuation shelters.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, living symbols of the nation’s unity, were to visit a devastated coastal port town, followed by a trip to a school gymnasium in Sendai city that houses hundreds of evacuees.

The emperor, 77, and empress, 76, arrived on Wednesday morning from Tokyo by plane at an air base in Higashi Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture, some 350km north of the capital, television images showed.

Bowing to military rescue and relief workers who greeted them, the royal couple received a briefing and then headed by helicopter to Minamisanriku, a coastal town with a pre-quake population of around 20,000 people.

Since the disaster, 496 bodies have been recovered there and 656 people are still listed as missing. The tsunami destroyed more than 3,800 houses in the town, leaving over 6000 people sheltering in evacuation centres.

The emperor – who delivered his first ever televised address to the grieving nation on March 17 – and his wife have in recent weeks visited evacuation shelters further south, in prefectures near Tokyo.

But the trip on Wednesday was the couple’s first to the area most devastated by the March 11 disaster, Japan’s worst post-war calamity which killed more than 14,500 people and left almost 11,500 missing.

The Imperial Household Agency said the royal couple will on Monday visit disaster-hit Iwate prefecture, and travel on May 11 to Fukushima prefecture to meet people forced from their homes because of Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Emergency crews are still battling to cool reactors at the tsunami-hit Fukushima atomic power plant, which has leaked radiation in the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl a quarter-century ago.

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