Japan paused on Friday to mark five years since an offshore earthquake spawned a monster tsunami that left about 18,500 people dead or missing along its northeastern coast and sparked the worst nuclear disaster in a quarter century.
Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other participants at a national ceremony in Tokyo bowed their heads along with residents across the affected region at 2:46 pm (0546 GMT) -- the exact moment on March 11, 2011 the magnitude 9.0 quake struck under the Pacific Ocean.
The massive earthquake unleashed a giant wall of water that swallowed schools and entire neighbourhoods, with unforgettable images of panicked residents fleeing to higher ground and vehicles and ships bobbing in the swirling waters of flooded towns.
The waves also swamped power supplies at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing reactor meltdowns that released radiation in the most dangerous nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
In the northern city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture -- the region that suffered the most deaths -- survivors and bereaved family members gathered at a Buddhist statue built for the repose of victims' souls in front of a huge breakwater at Arahama beach where massive waves came ashore five years ago.
Some joined hands in prayer, while a woman threw a bouquet of flowers into the sea.
Police and firefighters were seen combing that beach and others in continuing efforts to find evidence of victims, including bones, as many families say they still cannot abandon hope of seeing their loved ones again.
In remarks at the solemn event in Tokyo held inside the National Theatre, 82-year-old Akihito spoke of those who were forced to evacuate after the disaster because of nuclear contamination.
"I feel pain in my heart when I think of people who still could not return home," he said.
Some areas remain uninhabitable, though in others residents have been cleared to return.
The situation remains fragile in Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear plant suffered explosions that spread radioactive material into the surrounding countryside and ocean. The crisis forced tens of thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes, farms and fishing boats.
- 'Cold shutdown' -
Authorities have since brought the reactors to a state of "cold shutdown" and dispatched work crews to cleanse affected houses, sweep streets and shave topsoil in "decontamination" efforts.
Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the shuttered plant, admits it has only made small steps in what is likely to be a four-decade battle to decommission the crippled reactors.
Despite public opposition to nuclear power as a result of the disaster, the government has pushed to restart idled reactors, saying they are essential to power the world's third largest economy.
Japan's entire stable of reactors was shuttered in the aftermath of the disaster but Abe and utility companies have been pushing to get as many as possible back in operation despite opposition and legal hurdles.
Only this week, a court temporarily ordered the shutdown of two nuclear reactors previously declared safe, demonstrating the ongoing battles over Japan's energy policy.
The prime minister, along with other political and business leaders, has frequently visited the disaster-struck region and pledged to help rebuild the neighbourhoods and lives of local people.
"Whenever I go to affected areas, I feel that the disaster is ongoing," Abe said at the memorial event, acknowledging the enormity of the task that remains even five years on.
"But step by step, reconstruction is steadily making progress," added Abe, who the day before told the nation that it "cannot do without" nuclear power, though vowed to reduce dependence on it.
But many young families have moved away, accelerating the northeastern region's depopulation amid the broader greying of society, while those who have evacuated but want to return wonder if they ever can.
"I hope people will remember us, that lives of evacuees are still difficult in many ways, including financially," Kazuko Nihei, 39, said at a memorial event in a Tokyo park, where participants also observed a moment's silence.
"This event is for recalling the disaster and cooperation among us," added Nihei, who evacuated to Tokyo from Fukushima with her two daughters and now leads a self-help group for mothers from the region.