Japan on Friday mourned the thousands who lost their lives in a 9.0-earthquake and subsequent tsunami exactly five years ago, observing a moment of silence at 2:46 pm (0546 GMT), the moment the quake hit.
People around the nation bowed their heads and all the trains on Tokyo’s vast underground paused for a minute to mark the disaster that killed nearly 20,000 people and triggered the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986.
Japanese Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, all in formal wear, led an annual ceremony in Tokyo attended by 1,200 people, including officials and survivors from the stricken area.
The tsunami crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, where meltdowns in three reactors spewed radiation over a wide area of the countryside, contaminating water, food and air.
The government had to evacuate more than 160,000 people from nearby towns and some 10 percent still live in temporary housing across Fukushima prefecture. Most have settled outside their hometowns and have begun new lives.
Much of the Tohoku coast hit by the disaster remains empty except for mounds of dirt brought in to raise the ground level to minimise risks from future tsunamis before any rebuilding is done.
Nobuhito Akima, a businessman visiting for the first time from Tokyo, said the vast lands seem almost too clean. "I don't intend to say what's right or wrong regarding the reconstruction, but I also feel like I can't really tell where all this reconstruction is heading," he said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the eve of the anniversary, pledged to bolster reconstruction efforts and to rush decontamination work in irradiated areas near the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant to allow more residents to return home safely.
"Many people are still leading uncomfortable lives in the affected areas. There are many who cannot return to their beloved homes because of the accident at the nuclear power plant," he said at the ceremony.
He also set ambitious goals to reopen a damaged coastal railway in Fukushima by March 2020, just months before that summer’s Olympics in Tokyo and triple tourism in the north so that tourists can see the reconstruction "through their own eyes."
Residents of disaster-hit regions have criticised the government for rushing the reconstruction to showcase Fukushima's safety for the Olympics rather than for the residents.
"Infrastructure is recovering, hearts are not. I thought time would take care of things," said Eiki Kumagai, a Rikuzentakata volunteer fireman who lost 51 colleagues, many killed as they guided others to safety.
"I keep seeing the faces of those who died... There's so much regret, I can't express it."
Kazuo Sato, a former fisherman from Rikuzentakata said, "I get the feeling that the number of people who don't know what to do, who aren't even trying, is increasing."
He added that, "Their hearts are in pieces."