Japan marks fifth anniversary of devastating tsunami that killed 18,000

Masaki Kamei, a doctor from Tokyo who has been visiting disaster-hit areas every year, senses life is coming back.

Updated: March 11, 2016 9:46 am

Japan on Friday marked the fifth anniversary of the 2011 tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people and left a devastated coastline along the country’s northeast that has still not been fully rebuild.

In the town of Minamisanriku, a handful of tourists offered prayers in the morning at the skeletal remains of the former disaster prevention center, where 43 workers died as tsunami waves engulfed the building.

Nobuhito Akima, a businessman visiting for the first time from Tokyo, said the vast lands seem almost too clean. Much of the devastated Tohoku coast remains empty except for mounds of dirt brought in to raise the ground level to minimize risks from future tsunamis before any rebuilding is done.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bows at the start of a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo, Thursday, March 10, 2016, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Abe has pledged to bolster reconstruction efforts in tsunami-hit northern Japan and the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games. Abe promised to rush decontamination work in irradiated areas near the plant to allow more residents to safely return home. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bows at the start of a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo, Thursday, March 10, 2016, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Abe has pledged to bolster reconstruction efforts in tsunami-hit northern Japan and the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games. Abe promised to rush decontamination work in irradiated areas near the plant to allow more residents to safely return home. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

“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,” Akima said.

Masaki Kamei, a doctor from Tokyo who has been visiting disaster-hit areas every year, senses life is coming back.

“What’s different this year compared to last year is fishermen have already gone out fishing by dawn … and towns are already bustling about going on with their business,” he said. “There is an expression _ the hammering sound of reconstruction _ but that’s how I feel, I sense that emphasis has shifted.”

People offer incense stick to mourn the victims of the deadly March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan early Friday, March 11, 2016. Japan marks the fifth anniversary of the disaster on Friday. The sign reads "We never forget." (Jun Hirata/Kyodo News via AP) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT People offer incense stick to mourn the victims of the deadly March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan early Friday, March 11, 2016. Japan marks the fifth anniversary of the disaster on Friday. The sign reads “We never forget.” (Jun Hirata/Kyodo News via AP) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT

On the eve of the anniversary, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to bolster reconstruction efforts in tsunami-hit northern Japan and the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games.

Abe promised to rush decontamination work in irradiated areas near the plant to allow more residents to safely return home. He also set ambitious goals to reopen a damaged coastal railway in Fukushima by 2020 and triple tourism in the north.

“We will designate the next five years as a reconstruction revitalization period,” Abe said. “We plan to secure an ample budget to launch support measures to help disaster-hit areas stand on their feet again.”

Japanese Coast Guard divers prepare for underwater searches Thursday, March 10, 2016, a day before the fifth anniversary of the deadly March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan. The Japanese coast guard has resumed underwater searches for some of the more than 2,500 people still missing from the 2011 disaster that devastated the country’s northeast coast. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda) Japanese Coast Guard divers prepare for underwater searches Thursday, March 10, 2016, a day before the fifth anniversary of the deadly March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan. The Japanese coast guard has resumed underwater searches for some of the more than 2,500 people still missing from the 2011 disaster that devastated the country’s northeast coast. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda)

Tokyo is the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Residents of disaster-hit regions have criticized the government for rushing the reconstruction to showcase Fukushima’s safety for the Olympics rather than for the residents.

The government hopes to reopen all evacuation zones by next March, except for the dangerously contaminated surroundings of the plant.

A group leader of Japanese Coast Guard divers briefs his team members before underwater searches Thursday, March 10, 2016, a day before the fifth anniversary of the deadly March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan. The Japanese coast guard has resumed underwater searches for some of the more than 2,500 people still missing from the 2011 disaster that devastated the country’s northeast coast. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda) A group leader of Japanese Coast Guard divers briefs his team members before underwater searches Thursday, March 10, 2016, a day before the fifth anniversary of the deadly March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan. The Japanese coast guard has resumed underwater searches for some of the more than 2,500 people still missing from the 2011 disaster that devastated the country’s northeast coast. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda)

Abe said he wants to triple the number of foreign visitors to the Tohoku region to 1.5 million in 2020 so that tourists can see the reconstruction “through their own eyes.”

He pledged to reopen the Joban railway line, part of which is in the highly contaminated no-go zone, by March 2020, just months before the Olympics.