Image: Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko talk with an evacuee at an evacuation center in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Koji Sasahara  /  Pool via AP
Emperor Akihito, second from left, and Empress Michiko, left, talk with an evacuee at a shelter on Thursday. The imperial couple's visit was aimed at lifting the spirits of some 1,400 evacuees from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
By
updated 4/14/2011 9:07:09 AM ET 2011-04-14T13:07:09

Japan's revered emperor made his first trip Thursday to the disaster zone since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami destroyed much of the northeast coast and set off a crisis of radiation leaks at a flooded nuclear plant.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited two evacuation shelters Thursday in Asahi city, about 54 miles east of Tokyo near the Pacific coast. The royal couple knelt on mats and spoke quietly with evacuees, who bowed deeply. Some wiped tears from their eyes.

Thirteen people died, and some 3,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the city. The emperor and empress plan additional visits to other tsunami-affected areas in coming weeks. Overall, more than 26,000 people are believed to have died in the disaster, though only about 11,250 bodies have been recovered so far.

Story: Japan struggles to explain delay on radiation report

Nearly 140,000 people are still living in shelters after losing their homes or being advised to evacuate because of concerns about radiation leaking from the nearby Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Although Japanese officials have insisted the situation at the crippled plant is improving, the crisis has dragged on, accompanied by a nearly nonstop series of mishaps and aftershocks of the 9.0-magnitude quake that have impeded work in clearing debris and restoring the plant's disabled cooling systems.

The setbacks are angering and frustrating residents whose lives have been derailed by the crisis.

Story: Evacuees slam Japan nuclear plant operator

"I'm physically and mentally worn out," said Yoshihisa Kato, a 66-year-old noodle shop owner in the town of Kawamata, which is about 28 miles northwest of the plant and in an area where officials have urged people to evacuate over radiation concerns.

"I've been going to funerals almost everyday because many elderly people in my neighborhood have died due to shocks and exhaustion," said Kato, whose business has dried up as residents have fled the area.

Population near U.S. nuclear plants

Japan acknowledged this week that overall leaked radioactivity already has catapulted the crisis into the highest severity on an international scale, on a par with Chernobyl, though still involving only a tenth of the radioactivity emitted in that 1986 disaster.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Sendai airport lands first planes

  1. Closed captioning of: Sendai airport lands first planes

    >> glimmer of hopeful news from japan tonight at long last. the first passenger plane since the march 11th earthquake and nomy landed today at sendai airport . this is sabig deal because it's the same airport we watched a month ago during the water rushing across the tarmac at high speed . the facility suffered high damage, and mind you, it will be another six weeks or so before it's all back open and up to full speed.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

loading photos...
  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Image: Kawauchimura Village in the Radius of 20-30 km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
    Koichi Kamoshida / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (9) Devastation in Japan after quake
  2. Image: Magnitude 8.9 Strong Earthquake Jolts Northern Japan
    Xinhua via Getty Images
    Slideshow (46) Triple tragedy for Japan

Timeline: Crisis in Japan

How events have unfolded since a 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan, triggering a deadly tsunami and nuclear power disaster.

  1. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Above: Timeline Crisis in Japan
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments