TOKYO (AP) — Amid growing dissatisfaction with the slow pace of recovery, Japan marked the second anniversary Monday of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing and has displaced more than 300,000.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the government intends to make "visible" reconstruction progress and accelerate resettlement of those left homeless by streamlining legal and administrative procedures many blame for the delays.
"I pray that the peaceful lives of those affected can resume as soon as possible," Emperor Akihito said at a somber memorial service at Tokyo's National Theater.
At observances in Tokyo and in still barren towns along the northeastern coast, those gathered bowed their heads in a moment of silence marking the moment, at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake — the strongest recorded in Japan's history — struck off the coast.
Japan has struggled to rebuild communities and to clean up radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, whose reactors melted down after its cooling systems were disabled by the tsunami. The government has yet to devise a new energy strategy — a central issue for its struggling economy with all but two of the country's nuclear reactors offline.
About half of those displaced are evacuees from areas near the nuclear plant. Hundreds of them filed a lawsuit Monday demanding compensation from the government and the now-defunct plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, for their suffering and losses.
"Two years after the disasters, neither the government nor TEPCO has clearly acknowledged their responsibility, nor have they provided sufficient support to cover the damages," said Izutaro Managi, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
Throughout the disaster zone, the tens of thousands of survivors living in temporary housing are impatient to get resettled, a process that could take up to a decade, officials say.
"What I really want is to once again have a 'my home,' " said Migaku Suzuki, a 69-year-old farm worker in Rikuzentakata, who lost the house he had just finished building in the disaster. Suzuki also lost a son in the tsunami, which obliterated much of the city.
Further south, in Fukushima prefecture, some 160,000 evacuees are uncertain if they will ever be able to return to homes around the nuclear power plant, where the meltdowns in three reactors spewed radiation into the surrounding soil and water.
The lawsuit filed by a group of 800 people in Fukushima demands an apology payment of 50,000 yen ($625) a month for each victim until all radiation from the accident is wiped out, a process that could take decades. Another 900 plan similar cases in Tokyo and elsewhere. Managi said he and fellow lawyers hope to get 10,000 to join the lawsuits.
Evacuees are anxious to return home but worried about the potential, still uncertain risks from exposure to the radiation from the disaster, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.
While there have been no clear cases of cancer linked to radiation from the plant, the upheaval in people's lives, uncertainty about the future and long-term health concerns, especially for children, have taken an immense psychological toll on thousands of residents.
"I don't trust the government on anything related to health anymore," said Masaaki Watanabe, 42, who fled the nearby town of Minami-Soma and doesn't plan to return.
Yuko Endo, village chief in Kawauchi, said many residents might not go back if they are kept waiting too long. Restrictions on access are gradually being lifted as workers remove debris and wipe down roofs by hand.
"If I were told to wait for two more years, I might explode," said Endo, who is determined to revive his town of mostly empty houses and overgrown fields.
A change of government late last year has raised hopes that authorities might move more quickly with the cleanup and reconstruction.
Since taking office in late December, Abe has made a point of frequently visiting the disaster zone, promising faster action and plans to raise the long-term reconstruction budget to 25 trillion yen ($262 billion) from 19 trillion yen (about $200 billion).
"We cannot turn away from the harsh reality of the affected areas. The Great East Japan Earthquake still is an ongoing event," Abe said at the memorial gathering in Tokyo. "Many of those hit by the disaster are still facing uncertainty over their futures."
The struggles to rebuild and to cope with the nuclear disaster are only the most immediate issues Japan is grappling with as it searches for new drivers for growth as its export manufacturing lags, its society ages and its huge national debt grows ever bigger.
Those broader issues are also hindering the reconstruction. Towns want to rebuild, but they face the stark reality of dwindling, aging populations that are shrinking further as residents give up on ever finding new jobs. The tsunami and nuclear crisis devastated local fish processing and tourism industries, accelerating a decline that began decades before.
Meanwhile, the costly decommissioning the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant could take 40 years as its operator works on finding and removing melted nuclear fuel from inside, disposing the spent fuel rods and treating the many tons of contaminated wastewater used to cool the reactors.
Following the Fukushima disaster, Japan's 50 still viable nuclear reactors were shut down for regular inspections and then for special tests to check their disaster preparedness. Two were restarted last summer to help meet power shortages, but most Japanese remain opposed to restarting more plants.
The government, though, looks likely to back away from a decision to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s. Abe says it may take a decade to decide on what Japan's energy mix should be.
Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Emily Wang in Kesennuma, Japan, contributed to this report.