Japan is paying tribute to the nearly 20,000 victims of a powerful earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeast of the country 10 years ago, destroying towns and triggering the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were expected to join a memorial for the dead at a commemorative ceremony in Tokyo on Thursday, while several other public and private events were planned across northeastern Japan.

A minute’s silence will be marked nationwide at 14.46 local time (05:46 GMT), the precise moment the 9.0-magnitude quake struck on March 11, 2011.

The onslaught of waves triggered by the tremor crashed into the northeastern coast, crippling the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. More than 160,000 residents were forced to evacuate as radiation spewed into the air.

The disaster has left survivors in Tohoku struggling to overcome the grief of losing families and whole communities to the 15-metre high wave.

As the sun rose in the town of Hisanohama on Thursday, 78-year-old Toshio Kumaki was walking along a giant sea wall built after the tsunami.

“I come here every morning for a walk, but this is a special day,” he told AFP news agency as he pressed his hands together and prayed in the direction of the rising sun.

About 60 people were killed in Ohisa, one of the districts next to the beach, when the tsunami washed ashore, wiping away everything but a tiny shrine.

Kumaki’s eyes filled with tears as he remembered the disaster. “It was really scary.”

The government has spent about $300bn (32.1 trillion yen) to rebuild the tsunami-devastated region, but areas around the Fukushima plant remain off-limits, worries about radiation levels linger and many who left have settled elsewhere.

Decommissioning of the crippled plant will take decades and billions of dollars.

About 50 kilometres (31 miles) south from the Fukushima plant, in the gritty coastal city of Iwaki which has since become a hub for nuclear decommissioning workers, restaurant owner Atsushi Niizuma prayed to his mother killed in the tsunami.

“I want to tell my mother that my children, who were all close to her, are doing well. I came here to thank her that our family is living safely,” the 47-year-old told Reuters news agency.

Before setting off for work, he quietly prayed at a shrine with carvings of his mother’s name, Mitsuko, and 65 others who died in the earthquake.

On the day of the disaster, Mitsuko was looking after his children. The children rushed into a car. Mitsuko was swept away by the waves as she returned to the house to grab her belongings. It took a month to recover her body.

Local residents offer prayers to earthquake and tsunami victims on the shores of Arahama district in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture on March 11, 2021 [Jiji Press/ AFP]
Firefighters look for the remains of people who went missing after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Namie, Fukushima prefecture, Japan March 11, 2021 [Kim Kyung-Hoon/ Reuters]

Tributes and condolences also poured in from around the world, with everyone from United Nations Secretary Antonio Guterres to singer Lady Gaga offering their thoughts on the anniversary.

“Offering condolences to those who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones,” Guterres said, adding that he was also thinking “of those who remain displaced, unable to return to their homes because of safety concerns”.

In that respect, he said he welcomed the findings of a UN report published on Tuesday, from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which concluded that no adverse health affects among residents of Fukushima had been found that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure.

Lady Gaga said the resilience of the Japanese people offered hope in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“Through the years, seeing and hearing about the vast recovery of your beautiful cities, I have so much respect to the people of Japan for your strength, kindness and love for each other,” the American singer and actress said in a video posted on her Twitter account.

“It gives hope to the people now that are fighting through the COVID pandemic all around the world.”

Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, also offered a message of support.

“The United States stands in solidarity with Japan to remember those lost and still missing, and to honor the resilience of the Japanese people who rebuilt their homes, their livelihoods, and their communities,” he said.

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