Japanese ministers joined the families of victims as they bowed their heads and clasped their hands during Sunday's memorial ceremony in Tokyo, marking the seventh anniversary of the tsunami disaster that took more than 18,000 lives, triggered a nuclear meltdown and turned communities into ghost towns.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, dressed in formal mourning attire, led a minute of prayer at the ceremony as sirens wailed at 2:46 p.m. (0546 UTC), the moment the quake struck Japan's northeastern coast on March 11, 2011. Broadcasters also cut their programming to show residents in the affected areas offering a moment of silence.
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"I offer my condolences to those who lost their beloved family members and friends," Abe said. "As seven years have passed, reconstruction progress in the disaster-affected region has been made consistently. However, by being aware of circumstances of the affected residents, we will continue to spend our efforts providing uninterrupted support for the region."
Although ageing Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko did not attend the ceremony, Japan's royal family was represented by their son Prince Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko.
"It is my earnest hope ... that we hand down the knowledge to future generations in order to protect many people from the dangers of disasters," Prince Akishino said.
Ceremony-goers also heard personal stories from three surviving residents from the disaster-hit Fukushima region. Seventy-year-old Hideko Igarashi told how she, her husband and her uncle had begun preparing to leave the area when the tsunami struck.
"I grabbed a pine tree but I was swamped by the tsunami ... My husband got away from me and he shouted 'Hideko' three times," she said. "I wish I had told him to run away much earlier."
Floods and nuclear meltdowns
The 2011 tsunami was triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake under the Pacific Ocean.
The killer tsunami left some 18,500 people dead or missing and washed away entire neighborhoods as it swept inland. The high waves also struck the emergency power supply at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, sending its reactors into meltdown and triggering the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
In addition, some 3,600 people, mainly from Fukushima, died in the aftermath of causes linked to the tragedy, such as illness and suicide.
Ongoing aftermath of the tsunami
Seven years on from the disaster, tens of thousands of citizens continue to suffer from the consequences of the tsunami.
While the government lifted evacuation orders on towns surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant last spring, several areas remain no-go zones due to the high radiation levels.
More than 73,000 people who fled the region remain displaced, living in "temporary" prefabricated housing.
Authorities are encouraging evacuees to return, but a government survey published earlier this month showed that only around half of the residents from the northeastern towns of Namie and Tomioka are willing to go back.
Meanwhile, cleaning up the still radioactive Fukushima plant is expected to take another 30 to 40 years.
The meltdown has prompted a majority of Japanese nationals to oppose nuclear power. Only three of Japan's 42 working reactors are currently in operation.
The disaster also drove German Chancellor Angela Merkel to revise Germany's own energy policy, launching an ambitious transition away from nuclear power towards renewables.
dm/jlw (AFP, AP, dpa)