Japan on Saturday marked 12 years since a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the country's northeast, claiming the lives of over 15,000 people and triggering a nuclear disaster that will take decades to clean up.

Recovery from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and resultant tsunami that devastated Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures has progressed in the ensuing years, but some 31,000 people remained displaced as of November 2022. Cleanup plans at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex are also stoking controversy.

People hold a memorial service on a beach in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

At 2:46 p.m., the exact time the massive quake struck the region on March 11, 2011, people across the nation observed a moment of silence, with residents in the hardest-hit areas vowing to continue passing on the lessons learned from the disaster.

More than a decade on from the disaster, the national government no longer hosts a memorial service, with municipalities in the affected areas holding events on a reduced scale.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who attended a ceremony hosted by the Fukushima prefectural government, vowed that his government will "continue to do its utmost" to ensure the reconstruction of Fukushima and the wider Tohoku region.

In his remarks, Kishida said that progress in lifting evacuation orders still in place showed Fukushima has "begun to move toward full recovery and revitalization."

A woman visits a grave in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, on March 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

The latest anniversary comes at a time when Kishida's administration is moving ahead with a controversial change to its nuclear policy that could mean reactors are operated beyond their current 60-year limit.

The most recent figures from the National Police Agency released Thursday put the death toll from the disaster at 15,900 people, while 2,523 people remained unaccounted for -- the first time in 12 years that the numbers have not risen.

Among those commemorating the deceased on Saturday were Hiroaki Sato, 49, who went with his wife and two sons to pray for his deceased father in Arahama, a coastal area in Miyagi that was devastated in the disaster. "I wanted to show him how much his grandkids have grown up," Sato said.

According to the Reconstruction Agency, as of March 31 last year, deaths related to the disaster, including those due to illness or stress-induced suicide, stood at 3,789.

A visitor from Sapporo places flowers on a beach in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in the early morning of March 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida makes a speech at a memorial service in Fukushima on March 11, 2023, the 12th anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan. (Kyodo)

Ayako Yanai, a 67-year-old living in Okuma, one of the Fukushima towns that host the defunct nuclear power plant, lost her father-in-law and her husband in 2016 and 2019, respectively, when they were evacuated within the prefecture.

But their deaths were not recognized as related to the disaster because too much time had passed. Disagreeing with the assessments, Yanai said, "Stress builds up from having to move over and over again to places you've never known. It's got nothing to do with how many years it's been."

Controversy persists over the cleanup in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, including over the planned discharge from spring or summer of treated water stored at the crippled Fukushima plant into the sea.

Water contaminated after being pumped into the reactors to cool melted fuel has accumulated at the facility and the volume is also increasing due to rainwater and groundwater at the site flowing in.

Construction began in 2022 of an around 1-kilometer tunnel that will funnel into the ocean the more than 1.3 million tons of treated water that had amassed at the cleanup site as of Feb. 16. Already 96 percent of the available water tanks have been filled, with their capacity expected to be reached by summer or fall this year.

Opposition has come from several sources, including local people and fishing businesses, amid fears that releasing the water into the Pacific will cause reputational damage. Neighboring countries South Korea and China have also expressed concern.

But while concerns do exist, Gustavo Caruso, the head of an International Atomic Energy Agency task force assessing the safety of the water discharge, said in January that Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority has "prepared thorough evidence" on how its regulatory plans for releasing the water are in line with the agency's standards.

A no-go zone continues to be in place near the Fukushima plant and decommissioning work is scheduled to continue until sometime between 2041 and 2051.

Partial reopenings have progressed in some of the last areas to remain inaccessible since the nuclear disaster.

Last year between June and August, the municipalities of Katsurao as well as Okuma and Futaba saw evacuation orders lifted in some areas.

But few registered residents are returning to their communities after years away have seen them build lives elsewhere, with a Kyodo News survey showing that just 1 percent of former residents in the reopened parts of the three municipalities had moved back as of February.

Nobuko Yamazaki, a 77-year-old living in municipal housing in Futaba, said she "can't keep up" with how rapidly the town has changed in the last 12 years. "All we can do is wait for residents to come back," she said.

Three other towns in Fukushima will be the next to see some evacuation orders lifted in spring this year.

A vehicle and building destroyed by the massive 2011 tsunami in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, are seen on March 11, 2023, as the nuclear disaster that followed has hampered the area's recovery. (Kyodo)

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