Participants at a memorial service held in the Ishinomaki city government’s Kitakami Sogo branch office on March 4. (Shogo Koshida)
Memorial services were held across the devastated Tohoku region on March 4 to mark last year's disaster that claimed some 20,000 lives.
Events were held prior to the actual March 11 anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami because many official ceremonies are due to be held this coming Sunday.
Bereaved family members and others who lost friends and colleagues in the catastrophe poured out their feelings.
Takeshi Takeyama heads an association to remember the 84 children, teachers and clerical staff of Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, who perished or remain unaccounted for.
"Agony and bitterness do not heal," Takeyama, 57, told the 500 or so mourners at a service held in the city. "I continue to endure that pain. By helping each other and valuing our lives, let’s live our lives to the fullest, while weeping for our loved ones and feeling suffering."
Kazutaka Sato, 45, who lost his third son, Yuki, then a sixth-grader of the elementary school, said: "I can hardly believe that one year has already passed (since the disaster). But now that March has come around again, I just feel more bitterness."
Another memorial service was held in the ruins of Ishinomaki city government’s Kitakami Sogo branch office, where many residents took refugee after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck.
The building had been designated as an evacuation center in times of disaster. Nobody had anticipated a massive tsunami hitting later, sweeping away all but three who had gathered there.
The building is due to be demolished shortly.
"It is hard to see the wrecked building. But when I come here, I feel that I can see my elder sister," said Tamie Miura, 43, referring to her sibling, a city government employee, who is still missing.
"I want (the city government) to build a facility dedicated to the many people who died here and which enables us to pray for the repose of the souls of the victims," she added.
The branch office was located near the mouth of the Kitakamigawa river and obliterated by the tsunami.
Concrete poles stand at odd angles.
Before tsunami hit the building, staff of the branch office did a head count of people in the building. There were 19 branch office employees and 38 local residents, including pupils of nearby Yoshihama Elementary School.
Of them, only two employees of the branch office and a child survived.
However, the exact number and the names of those who were swept away is still unknown.
Meanwhile, in the Ando district of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, where 218 people died and many others are still missing, a bell and a siren rang out at 2:46 p.m., the time when the earthquake struck. The 400 or so mourners offered silent prayers.
One of them was Teruo Shirogane, 62, whose mother, wife and daughter are still missing.
"I think that they must be feeling very cold. My hopes that they will be found soon are growing stronger and stronger," he said.
A memorial service was also held in the town of Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, most of which straddles the no-entry zone around the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Thirteen cherry seedlings were planted in memory of the 13 residents who perished in the tsunami.
Kazuo Owada, 55, attended the memorial service while wearing protective clothing to mourn his mother Toki, who was 83.
"I hope that I can live in this town (again) when these cherry seedlings have grown," Owada said.
Authorites in the town of Futaba, which is located in the no-entry zone, held a memorial service in Iwaki, also in Fukushima Prefecture.
"Although one year has passed (since the disaster), I still cannot accept this (reality). But this memorial service offers a chance to go forward, which is something I must do," said Yukari Tanaka, 25, whose father Toshikatsu, then 54, died in the tsunami.