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Japanese Village Marks Disasters' Anniversary


Japan is remembering the massive earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and triggered a nuclear crisis a year ago today. At 2:46 P.M. local time, trains stopped, sirens blared, and people across Japan bowed their heads in silence. But one year on, rebuilding has not even begun on much of the country's devastated northeast coast.

And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the fishing town of Minamisanriku is still too early for most of the wounds to heal.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A Buddhist monk reads Sutras and prays for the soul of Keiko Henmi, 74, who was washed away by the tsunami. The monk's temple was washed away too, so the service is being held in a prefabricated room next to a hillside graveyard.


KUHN: Outside the room, Henmi's son, Yoshimi, says the police and military did their best but so far have not found his mother's body.

YOSHIMI HENMI: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: This doesn't mean we're giving up searching for her, he says. He pauses, struggling to find his words. But in order to achieve some sort of closure and move on, I decided to hold the ceremony.

This tsunami largely obliterated the town center of Minamisanriku. Police continue to search for some of the more than 3,000 people missing up and down the coast. More than 500 bodies remain unidentified.

After the Henmi service, Zen monk Fumio Tsuji confides that he's worried about the mental and spiritual health of the town's residents. He says that several of his followers have committed suicide since the quake.

FUMIO TSUJI: (Through Translator) One hanged himself, another drowned himself in the ocean, and another jumped off a building. I lost some close friends and I thought about why I couldn't save them. One reason is that I work in Sendai and I'm only here on the weekends, so I couldn't take care of them and I regret this greatly.

KUHN: At the National Theatre in Tokyo, Emperor Akihiko and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda bowed deeply and spoke before huge tablets representing the spirits of the deceased. Noda promised more assistance to the tsunami-ravaged coastal communities.

YOSHIHIKO NODA: (Foreign language spoken) In order to ensure that the souls of the departed are duly respected and their wishes passed down to posterity, Noda said, I pledge that the government will work to accomplish reconstruction in the disaster-affected regions without delay.


KUHN: At an auditorium in Minamisanriku, schoolchildren sang upbeat songs about the joys of being alive: Happiness is a relaxing bath in a tub provided by the self-defense forces, they sing.

Many survivors except that the quake and tsunami were unstoppable forces of nature. But some Minamisanriku residents are angry; they feel that they were the victims of human error.


KUHN: Town employee, 24-year-old Miki Endo, stayed at her post, broadcasting this tsunami warning that saved many lives, but cost her own. She and dozens of other employees of the town's emergency response center were swept away by the massive waves. But town Mayor Jin Sato survived, clinging to the radio antenna on top of the building. Sato declined to be interviewed.

Forty-six-year-old employee Noritaka Makino(ph) was also washed away in his body was never found. His father, farmer and former mayor, Shun Makino says the family held a funeral for his son just last month even though it brought him little solace.

SHUN MAKINO: (Through Translator) The hardest thing for me is to see my wife. She looks out to sea every morning and cries. She believes my son is somewhere out there at sea.

KUHN: Now, Shun Makino is suing Mayor Sato for negligence. He says the mayor should have ordered his subordinates to evacuate. Makino points to a table at one end of the room, with flowers and incense surrounding a picture of his smiling son.

MAKINO: (Through Translator) We've set up this altar to my son and my home and we remember him and pray for him. But there's one thing we can't tell him, why did he have to die like that. Why do the mayor tell him to stay in the building? If the mayor had admitted he made a mistake and apologized, we could tell that to our children. That would bring us some closure.

KUHN: In a bid to spruce up and cheer up the community, Makino has lately taken to planting sunflowers. To describe the sunflowers appearance and its effect on people's mood, he tilts the palms of his thick hands forward and arches his bushy eyebrows upwards, as if soaking up the warmth of a distant sun somewhere in the wintry sky.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Minamisanriku, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.