Each year on March 11 at precisely 2:46 p.m., a siren blares across much of the northeastern Japan region that was devastated in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but instead of marking respect for the dead as intended, for many, it revives the pain and heartache of the disaster.

The mournful wail, the same which was used amid the panic on that day, brings a flood of memories rushing back, causing many to revisit the trauma they experienced.

People observe a moment of silence on March 11, 2019, in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, to the wail of a siren commemorating the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. (Kyodo)

Out of respect, some areas have decided not to broadcast the siren, but more than 80 percent of the coastal municipalities in the three affected prefectures plan to do so again this year.

Victims and family members of the dead, many of whom find the sound extremely unsettling, are now speaking out about the gesture that is meant to honor their loved ones. Some have started pressing local authorities to instead use a more soothing tone that is not so directly associated with 3/11.

People observe a moment of silence in front of a cenotaph on March 11, 2019, as a siren wails commemorating the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. (Kyodo)

"That siren is like a countdown to death," said Yumiko Suzuki, 53, from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, whose sixth-grade son Hidekazu died in the disaster.

The 12-year-old was in class when the earthquake struck. She believes the tsunami siren must have been terrifying for the children.

Because she finds it too painful to imagine the scene of her son's death, Suzuki recites prayers at a temple each year on the day of the disaster.

The city sounds the siren on the same outdoor loudspeakers used during the disaster. If the people who died can hear that sound, says, Suzuki, "I doubt they feel at peace."

Kyoko Aoki, 64, who lost her eldest son Kenji, then a 31-year-old police officer in the city, also does her best to block out the sound. "Our feelings are the same after more than a decade. I hate feeling the difference in mood between us and other people (not affected by the disaster)," Aoki said.

A woman in her 50s who lost a family member in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, says she "tenses up" before the alarm rings. A friend of hers, in the same situation, will run to the restroom at work and scream to get through it. The sound is so anxiety-inducing for others that they try to cover their ears.

Yumiko Suzuki (R) and Kyoko Aoki who have called for changing the siren that commemorates the anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, are pictured in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 11, 2023.

Last summer, Suzuki and Aoki consulted with Ishinomaki officials to see if the sound might be changed. In response to a Kyodo News interview, the city said "it partially understands," but the siren is also "meant to raise awareness about disaster prevention and mitigation."

It argues that because some residents think of the siren as a means of "bracing oneself," it would be difficult to change it under the current circumstances.

According to a Kyodo News tally conducted through Feb. 20, at least 32 of the 37 coastal cities, towns and villages in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures plan to broadcast the siren through their disaster prevention radio systems to mark the time of the earthquake.

People observe a moment of silence as a siren wails, commemorating the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 11, 2019. (Kyodo)

On the other hand, Sendai, Miyagi's prefectural capital, out of consideration for traumatized residents, has not sounded the alarm, including in the year following the disaster. "I hope people can mourn in their own way," said a Sendai official.

Tagajo, a city also in Miyagi, considered the possibility of using gongs or announcements in response to requests from residents to forgo the siren last year but decided against making the change in line with neighboring municipalities.

Suzuki, for her part, has not abandoned hope for a sound more suitable for those who died on March 11.

"If it is for disaster prevention, a day meant for drills should be fine. On March 11, we should think of those who died and remember their smiles," she said.

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