Japan marks six months after March disaster, nuclear crisis

TOKYO — Residents in northeastern Japan Sunday commemorated those who perished in a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami as the country marked six months since the March 11 disaster.

National police said 15,781 people had been confirmed dead and 4,086 listed as missing as of Saturday. The government estimated the disaster caused 16.9 trillion yen ($217.7 billion) in damage.

The number of evacuees has reached some 82,000, including 6,800 still in makeshift shelters at schools or local community centers.

Most of the planned temporary housing has been completed, but some evacuees have refused to accept accommodation in inconvenient areas, officials said.

Koichi Sasaki, an official at the Miyagi prefecture, also blamed a lack of clarity in Tokyo for delays in reconstruction.

“For example, the government has not decided where they want to rebuild residential communities” in coastal cities, the areas hardest hit by the tsunami, he said.

Some argue that the new accommodation should be built on higher ground to avoid future disasters, which would be more costly, while others advocated rebuilding the existing communities.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station has leaked radioactive material since it was crippled by the disaster. Tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes around the plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. has been struggling to bring it under control, which the operator is hoping to achieve in January.

On Saturday, Industry Minister Yoshio Hachiro stepped down over gaffes he made about areas near the plant.

Hachiro called the areas “towns of death” after he accompanied Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to inspect the nuclear complex.

The resignation came only eight days after the new government of the premier was officially formed.

The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper on Saturday described the “towns of death” remark as coming from Hachiro at a press conference Friday morning: “I saw not a single person (in areas around the nuclear plant). They were literally towns of death.”

The paper said he withdrew the remark and apologized at a news conference in the afternoon that day.

“It was an expression that might lead to misunderstanding among the disaster victims,” Hachiro said at the news conference. “I sincerely regret it, withdraw the comment and deeply apologize for that.”

Already, there were calls for his resignation among the ruling and opposition parties, after a gesture he made Thursday evening, the paper reported.

The paper quoted Hachiro as saying, “Here’s some radiation,” gesturing as if to press the sleeve of his jacket against a reporter after returning from his inspection tour to areas around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

About that incident, Hachiro explained to the press Friday evening, “Actually, I wanted to talk about the disaster-hit areas, as there were many reporters whom I know well.”

“I don’t think I said anything like that (such as contaminating someone with radiation),” he added, according to the newspaper.

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Japan marks six months after March disaster, nuclear crisis