(TOKYO) — A moment of silence on Sunday marked one year since a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami battered Japan’s northeast coast, and triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Sirens blared across Japan at 2:46 p.m. as the nation stood still, the moment disaster struck. The magnitude-9.0 earthquake unleashed a powerful tsunami that towered more than 120 feet in some areas. The catastrophic waves flattened entire communities in the Tohoku region and killed nearly 20,000 people, though more than 3,000 bodies are still missing.
At a memorial service in Tokyo’s National Theater, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko bowed their heads in silence, along with hundreds of others attending the ceremony.
“I ask that you keep the victims in your thoughts,” he said. “If we all work hard, I am hopeful the situation will improve in the devastated regions.”
Mourners gathered early to honor victims in the hardest hit regions.
In the ravaged city of Ishinomaki, where more than 3,000 people died, residents offered prayers at a Buddhist temple, before dawn. They began ringing the bell—19,000 times –for every life lost.
In Rikuzentakata, a fishing town that lost more than 1,500 people, survivors gathered at the “tree of hope” to reflect on the horrors from one year ago.
Others marked the anniversary alone, quietly kneeling down on barren land where their homes once stood. “I wanted to save people but I couldn’t,” said Naomi Fujino, who lost her father to the tsunami. “I couldn’t even help my father. What can I do but keep going.”
While much of the debris has been swept aside into large piles, reconstruction has yet to begin in many towns.
About 325,000 people remain homeless, living in temporary housing units while the local and central government debate where and how to rebuild. In many communities, the opinions are split. Longtime residents, many of them elderly, want to return to the same areas the tsunami wiped out. Others want to build on higher ground, even if the process takes longer.
In areas around the Fukushima plant, hope for any homecoming is fading fast. About 80,000 people living within a 12-mile radius were evacuated, when the tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems, and triggered three reactors meltdowns that spewed radiation into the air.
Today, that nuclear exclusion zone remains off limits because of high radiation levels. Residents have only been allowed back home for a handful of temporary, supervised visits, and might not be able to return permanently for decades.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ivana Kottasova, CNN
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN