TOKYO • Japan paused yesterday to mark six years since a deadly earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster devastated its north-eastern coast, as more than 100,000 people remain unable or unwilling to return home.
The 9.0-magnitude quake, which struck under the Pacific Ocean on March 11, 2011, and the tsunami it spawned left about 18,500 people dead or missing.
The massive flow of water overwhelmed cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing meltdowns in three of its six reactors in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
The quake and tsunami caused widespread damage to homes, while radiation spread over a wide area, with more than 450,000 people evacuating in the immediate aftermath.
More than 123,000 remain displaced, the majority from Fukushima, due to high radiation.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other participants at a national ceremony in Tokyo bowed their heads in silent prayer, as did many residents across the affected region, at 2.46pm local time (1.46pm Singapore time) - the exact moment the quake struck.
The disaster "brought unprecedented damage" and "claimed many precious lives", Mr Abe told the solemn gathering. "I possess unceasing sympathy for those who lost beloved family members and friends."
Japan's ageing Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko did not attend this year's ceremony, but were represented by their son Prince Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko.
"Many people are still forced to face difficult times in the disaster areas and evacuation places," Mr Akishino said.
"I feel pain deep in my heart thinking about the health of those ageing year by year in the disaster zone and people who remain unable to return home due to high radiation levels."
Separately, hundreds of policemen and firefighters combed beaches along the coast of Fukushima prefecture, as they do on the 11th of each month, in a search for remains or other evidence of people who remain unaccounted for.
The latest National Police Agency figures show that the total number of people dead or missing from the earthquake and tsunami stood at 18,446.