TOKYO — Japan yesterday marked the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in the northeastern part of the country that triggered the world's worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
More than 19,000 people died or went missing in the March 11 twin natural disasters, which also destroyed more than 370,000 houses.
Many roads have since been rebuilt and most debris has been cleaned up, but 260,000 people still live in temporary housing in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.
The country commemorated the victims with a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m., the time the quake struck the region.
Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda attended a government-led memorial service in Tokyo.
"It is my hope that the people's hearts will always be with the afflicted people and the afflicted regions, and that everyone will continue to work towards improving the conditions of those areas," the emporer said.
Akihito also expressed his gratitude for the support that Japan had received from all over the world.
"Many people overseas responded to the disaster by sending us relief teams and offering us help in various ways," he said. "I am deeply grateful to the kindnesses shown by the people around the world."
Critics say the recovery has been painfully slow and the authorities have squeezed most of the disaster victims into tiny prefabricated housing units located far from city centers.
Noda, however, pledged a speedy recovery of the disaster-hit regions.
"The government will work to accomplish reconstruction in the disaster-affected regions without delay," Noda said.
The nuclear crisis forced more than 80,000 residents to leave areas around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which went into meltdown after it was struck by the tsunami. A series of fires and blasts led to massive release of radioactive substances into the environment.
The government set up a no-go zone 12.5 miles around the plant in late April.
"Those living in areas designated as the danger zone lost their homes and livelihoods and had to leave the places they used to live," the emperor said. "In order for them to live there again safely, we have to overcome the problem of radioactive contamination, which is a formidable task."
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano said Friday that human error had played a significant role in the nuclear disaster at the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.
"One reason that allowed the unfolding of the accident was the lack of independence of the regulatory body in Japan. The Japanese regulatory body was not robust enough, and the oversight over the operator was weak," Amaya said.
Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is under the control of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which had been promoting nuclear power generation.
On Sunday, anti-nuclear protests were held around the country, including one in Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture. The biggest was in Tokyo, where 10,000 people attended, according to organizers.