Archaeology undergraduate Taichi Shimotori, like millions of his fellow countrymen, paused for a minute's silence yesterday to mark the fifth anniversary of a massive quake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster in Fukushima prefecture.
The 21-year-old from Yokohama was not directly affected by the catastrophe, but he told The Straits Times at a ceremony in the coastal town of Obama in Fukushima: "We are all Japanese - we can't possibly turn our backs on one another."
Unity and solidarity were on show yesterday in what has become an annual event - millions across bustling and rural Japan stopped to remember at 2.46pm local time (1.46pm Singapore time). In Tokyo, bells chimed and all trains in the underground came to a halt.
That was the exact moment five years ago when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck under the Pacific Ocean, triggering a 10m wall of water that ravaged the north-east Japanese coast.
It crippled the Fukushima No. 1 power station, causing meltdowns in three of its reactors.
Some 18,500 people died or are missing, while another 174,000 residents are still displaced, in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl's 1986 accident.
In Tokyo, Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bowed their heads in prayer and laid flowers at an official remembrance ceremony attended by 1,200 people.
"I am concerned that there may be many people who are still suffering, unknown to us, in places that tend to escape our notice, including the elderly as they advance in age year by year," the Emperor said.
"It is important that everyone's hearts continue to be with the afflicted, so that each and every person in difficulty, without exception, will be able to get back their normal lives as soon as possible."
Tributes also poured in globally. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter yesterday: "India offers deep sympathy to those affected. We admire the resilience of people of Japan."
Japan has embarked on a 10-year masterplan to rebuild the ravaged north-east coast, earmarking trillions of yen for reconstruction efforts. Some 26.3 trillion yen (S$318 billion) has been budgeted since 2011, and yesterday the Cabinet approved another 6.5 trillion yen in spending to speed up the construction of public housing for evacuees, and for medical care and infrastructure, among other projects.
"Many people are still leading uncomfortable lives in the affected areas," Mr Abe said yesterday. "There are many who cannot return to their beloved homes because of the accident at the nuclear power plant."
The government hopes to reopen by next March all evacuation zones around the plant, except for three towns that remain dangerously contaminated.
But observers like Mr Yutaka Okada of the Mizuho Research Institute, who has studied reconstruction efforts, said the disaster has accelerated a demographic shift towards city areas.
The number of evacuees may have markedly dropped from a peak of 470,000, but many of those no longer considered displaced have opted to stay outside the region. A majority of the returnees are elderly.
Mr Hitoshi Aoki, an official with Japan's Ministry of Environment, told The Straits Times: "It is natural for younger residents who have rebuilt their lives elsewhere - with their children attending new schools and the parents holding new jobs - not to return."
Public opinion on the safety of nuclear power has been divided since the disaster, but Mr Abe said on Thursday that Japan "cannot do without" it. His administration wants nuclear power to meet as much as 22 per cent of energy needs by 2030.
Watch a video of yesterday's memorial ceremony in Obama town: http://str.sg/ZFh6