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Asia

Japan prepares to mark three years since devastating quake

As the third anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters to strike Japan approaches, around 20,000 people have been confirmed dead or are still missing as repair work in the northeast of the country continues.

The memories of March 11, 2011 are seared into the memory of Katsutaka Idogawa and will never go away. It had been a regular early spring day for the mayor of Futaba town, on the coast close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but that tranquility was about to be washed away for ever.

"What I saw, I have never seen in my life before," said 67-year-old Idogawa. "I could see the ocean from the window of the city hall on the fourth floor. There were houses and trees in the waves."

"There were things which were not supposed to be there and things that were supposed to be there, but they were not there any more," he said.

Just minutes earlier, Idogawa had driven along the road that ran parallel to the town's beach.

"If I had passed it any later, I would not be here today," he admits.

Severe damage

The damage caused to Futaba by the magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake and the massive tsunami that it triggered was severe, but the community's problems were only just beginning. The wall of water that roared onto the coast also destroyed the cooling system of four reactors at the nearby Fukushima plant, leading to partial melt-downs in three and to the release of massive amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

Mihama nuclear power station (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

The tsunami in 2011 damaged nuclear reactors in Japan

Today, a large swathe of land around the plant remains off limits to 80,000 local residents as work continues to try to clear up contamination in homes, fields and forests.

In a case study on the crisis for Greenpeace, Idogawa says he had been assured by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the Japanese government that no disaster could befall the Fukushima plant and that he and the residents of his town were safe. Eight days after the tsunami crippled the plant - and with little information from authorities on the true state of the crisis - Idogawa called on his community to evacuate their homes.

Today, he lives in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, but is working with the scattered residents of Futaba to one day rebuild the town.

'A long journey'

"We have a long journey ahead of us," he says. "And we are like a ship without a navigation system. The message should remind us that we don't lose [sight of] our destination. The message is for my people. It should encourage them."

Two victims of the earthquake in front of their damaged home in the Japanese town of Watari on March 14, 2011. (Photo: JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)

Many who lost their homes to the tsunami are still living in temporary housing

Idogawa's experiences and day-to-day struggles to rebuild lost communities, families and livelihoods are being repeated the length of the northeast coast of Japan, even though three years have passed since the disaster.

And for many, it is a struggle.

Mental health professionals have reported a sharp increase in people reporting problems in the last six months. The experts believe that stress has built up to a significant threshold as the third anniversary of the earthquake approaches, particularly among people living in temporary housing units after either being evacuated from areas around the nuclear plant or who lost their homes to the tsunami.

Millions of tons of debris

As well as the decontamination work close to the nuclear plant, work continues to remove the estimated 16.94 million tons of debris left in the wake of the earthquake in the three worst-affected prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi. The environment ministry says it expects the work to be completed by the end of March.

Radioactive waste at a temporary waste storage site in Naraha, Fukushima

The decontamination work, such as the removal of radioactive waste, is ongoing

In parallel with the government's efforts, volunteers are still helping out on the ground - even if they sometimes feel dispirited at the size of the task they still face.

"I first came to Tohoku in May to volunteer for one week," Jamie El-Banna tells Deutsche Welle. "I was teaching in Osaka, but wanted to do something to help.

"I had wanted to come up here immediately after the disaster but I was told that they didn't want amateurs because we would just get in the way," he explains. "After that first week, I went back to my job in Osaka and the very next day realized that I hated it. I resigned straight away.

"I honestly felt that I would be much happier and making more of a difference by literally shoveling mud."

Hundreds of volunteers

Many hundreds of volunteers have now offered their varied time and elbow-power to various projects for the disaster relief non-profit organization It's Not Just Mud (INJM), with efforts over the winter focused on three key areas.

Jahrestag Erinnerung Tsunami 2013

At last year's anniversary mourners joined hands to remember the victims of the earthquake and tsunami

Volunteers have been out on local fishermen's boats to help bring in the catch during the octopus season, while the seaweed crop is also being landed. To date, INJM has helped construct no fewer than 25 playgrounds for children up and down the coast of the Tohoku region, while a third element is visiting temporary housing units to simply talk with people who have lost their homes.

"It might not sound very useful, but the people love it when you go around and just shoot the breeze with them," El-Banna said. "We don't try to do grandiose events or anything like that; they just like us to visit them."

On March 11 this year, representatives of the national government and the Imperial Family will attend a memorial service in Tokyo for the dead and the missing.

At 2.46 pm that day, the time that tragedy struck, on the sites of destroyed homes and on beaches where the water claimed their loved-ones, the people of Tohoku will remember those who died.

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