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Japan Marking 5th Anniversary of Devastating Tsunami

The 2011 tsunami that killed 18,000 people and devastated the country's northeast coastline, some of which has not yet been rebuilt.

MINAMISANRIKU, Japan — Japan on Friday marked the fifth anniversary of the 2011 tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people and left a devastated coastline along the country's northeast that has still not been fully rebuilt.

In the town of Minamisanriku, a handful of tourists offered prayers in the morning at the skeletal remains of the former disaster prevention center, where 43 workers died as tsunami waves engulfed the building.

Nobuhito Akima, a businessman visiting for the first time from Tokyo, said the vast lands seem almost too clean. Much of the devastated Tohoku coast remains empty except for mounds of dirt brought in to raise the ground level to minimize risks from future tsunamis before any rebuilding is done.

"I don't intend to say what's right or wrong regarding the reconstruction, but I also feel like I can't really tell where all this reconstruction is heading," Akima said.

Masaki Kamei, a doctor from Tokyo who has been visiting disaster-hit areas every year, senses life is coming back.

"What's different this year compared to last year is fishermen have already gone out fishing by dawn ... and towns are already bustling about going on with their business," he said. "There is an expression — the hammering sound of reconstruction — but that's how I feel, I sense that emphasis has shifted."

Image: People pray toward the sea to mourn victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in Fukushima prefecture
People pray toward the sea to mourn victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on March 11.KYODO / Reuters

On the eve of the anniversary, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to bolster reconstruction efforts in tsunami-hit northern Japan and the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games.

Abe promised to rush decontamination work in irradiated areas near the plant to allow more residents to safely return home. He also set ambitious goals to reopen a damaged coastal railway in Fukushima by 2020 and triple tourism in the north.

"We will designate the next five years as a reconstruction revitalization period," Abe said. "We plan to secure an ample budget to launch support measures to help disaster-hit areas stand on their feet again."

Tokyo is the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Residents of disaster-hit regions have criticized the government for rushing the reconstruction to showcase Fukushima's safety for the Olympics rather than for the residents.

The government hopes to reopen all evacuation zones by next March, except for the dangerously contaminated surroundings of the plant.

Abe said he wants to triple the number of foreign visitors to the Tohoku region to 1.5 million in 2020 so that tourists can see the reconstruction "through their own eyes."

He pledged to reopen the Joban railway line, part of which is in the highly contaminated no-go zone, by March 2020, just months before the Olympics.