ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN // People all over Japan bowed their heads in silence yesterday as they remembered the almost 19,000 who died when a tsunami surged ashore two years ago.
Ceremonies were held in towns and cities throughout the disaster zone, as well as in Tokyo, where Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko led tributes to those who lost their lives in a disaster that also sparked a nuclear emergency.
As a mournful quiet descended, cold winds blew through the grounds of Okawa Elementary School, in Ishinomaki, where at least 70 children were swept to their deaths by the rising waters on March 11, 2011.
The city's tsunami alarms were sounded at 2.46pm, marking the exact moment a 9.0-magnitude undersea quake hit, sending a massive tsunami barrelling into Japan's north-east coast.
The tsunami that swallowed coastal communities also battered the Fukushima nuclear plant, which went through meltdowns and explosions in what was to become the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
A total of 15,881 people are confirmed to have died and 2,668 others remain unaccounted for.
The emperor paid tribute to those who lost their lives, including the more than 2,300 whose deaths have been recorded as being caused by the stresses of life in evacuation centres or temporary housing.
"I am always deeply moved by seeing how so many people lead their daily lives without complaining ... and hope ... to be able to share their suffering, if only a little," he said.
Rin Yamane, a pupil, recounted the horror of the day she lost her mother as they tried to escape the waves.
"Suddenly, we were in the middle of a black sea ... When I saw her in a morgue a few days later, I knew then it was a reality," she said.
Police in Miyagi prefecture were continuing their search for those still listed as missing, with a 50-strong team scouring the coastline.
"We haven't found any bodies for a year," the policeman Toshiaki Okajima said.
"But there are still 1,300 missing people in Miyagi alone and the feelings of families haven't changed. That's why the police need to keep looking for remains."
Efforts to rebuild the disaster-hit region have been slow. Figures show 315,196 people are still without a permanent home, many in cramped temporary housing units.
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, told a news conference he wanted the anniversary of the disaster to serve as a beacon.
"March 11 has to be a day for hope," he said. "When March 11 comes next year, it will have to be a day when people in the disaster zone can feel their communities are on the mend and their lives have improved greatly."