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The Japanese Tsunami Five Years Later

A monk accompanies people whose family members are still missing in the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami offering prayers as Japanese Coast Guard divers conduct an underwater search Thursday, March 10, 2016 in Hirota Bay in Rikuzentakata. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda)
The Japanese Tsunami Five Years Later
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Five years after a deadly earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, recovery remains years away.

More than 16,000 people died in the disaster and more than 470,000 were displaced from their homes, says the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Over 2,500 people are still missing and presumed dead. After pressure from survivors, the Japanese Coast Guard began underwater searches for the missing.

In Fukushima, more than 100,000 families still cannot return home, says the Red Cross Society. This is because of radioactive contamination from the damaged Daiichi nuclear plant.

In Japan, the disaster is known as “3-1-1,” marking the date five years ago.

It was really three disasters rolled into one.

“It started with an earthquake devastating in itself, then the tsunami, and then the radiation from the nuclear plant,” said Shioko Goto, a Japan expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Goto said the disaster showed the world, "Japanese resilience and Japanese unity.”

But it also showed shortcomings. Among the most notable, the long time it took to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant after it was flooded from the tsunami, Goto said. That process took eight months.

Another, Japan’s dependence on nuclear power, she said. The disaster forced Japan to close all of its nuclear power plants, leaving parts of the country without electricity.

Goto offered up one major difference from the last major Japanese disaster, the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. In 2011, social media was everywhere, she said.

Social media offered up plenty of “unfounded rumors and fearmongering,” Goto said.

But it also kept pressure on Japanese authorities to do more.

Chikara Yoshida lost his only son, a 43-year-old volunteer fireman, on March 11, 2011. He and his daughter posted a petition on Facebook to restart underwater searches. It drew over 28,000 signatures, according to the Associated Press.

The Japanese Coast Guard announced that it would resume searches this week.

There have also been complaints that reconstruction efforts in hard-hit northern Japanese communities have been too slow.

This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government will respond.

“There is no rebirth of Japan without the recovery of northern Japan,” Abe said.

Tadateru Konoe, president of the Japanese Red Cross Society, said it is the elderly who are left behind in temporary housing. The young, found it easier to move on “in search of new opportunities,” he said.

“As these temporary housing sites slowly empty, those who remain are left more vulnerable and more alone as their communities break up,” Konoe said in a statement.

The Japanese economy continues to struggle, though economists differ on how much of the blame rests with the 2011 disaster.

The latest data shows that Japan’s economy declined by 1.1 percent over the last quarter of 2015.

One bright spot has been tourism. Japan reported that visits by foreign visitors increased 47 percent last year, reaching nearly 20 million.

Officials are hopeful of even more growth, with Tokyo ready to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

I'm Kathleen Struck.

Bruce Alpert reported this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

tsunami – n. a very high, large wave in the ocean that is usually caused by an earthquake under the sea and that can cause great destruction when it reaches land

displace – v. to force (people or animals) to leave the area where they live

presumed – v. to believe something is true, or has happened

devastating – adj. causing great damage or harm

resilience – n. the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

stabilize – v. to become stable or back to normal

fearmongering – n. someone who spreads scary news, which is often false

resume – v. to continue

opportunity – n. chance to do something

vulnerable – adj. open to harm