40% of local govts in 2011 quake areas to forgo memorial services

Eleven years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, 40% of local governments in areas heavily affected by the disaster will for the first time forgo memorial services for quake victims on the March 11 anniversary, it has been learned.

Until now, 32 municipalities — cities, towns, and villages in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures on the coast of the Pacific Ocean — have held ceremonies every year, but this year 12 of them will instead set up tables for flower offerings or hold disaster-related damage-prevention events.

A government-organized memorial service held in Tokyo last year for the 10th anniversary of the quake marked the final time for such an event to be held in the capital. The ways of mourning those who died as a result of the 2011 disaster are changing in the more heavily quake-affected areas, too.

In Miyagi Prefecture, 13 cities and towns have held memorial services featuring speeches by mayors and representatives of bereaved families. This year, however, 10 of them will not hold such ceremonies. Instead, most of them will set up flower tables and call on residents via the local government’s wireless public address system to pause for silent prayer at 2:46 p.m. on the anniversary day.

In the city of Natori in the prefecture, flower tables will be placed at two locations: one in the city hall and one at a local park. Memorial service attendance has been dwindling since numbers peaked at 1,100 in 2017. Last year, only 450 attended the event. A municipal government official said, “We considered the 10th anniversary of the quake disaster [last year] as a kind of juncture.”

The town of Shichigahama decided against holding a ceremony after a survey showed many bereaved families thought “a memorial service does not have to be held every year.”

The city of Kesennuma, meanwhile, will hold a panel discussion on “handing down memories and lessons of the disaster, and providing education on disaster-related damage prevention.” Bereaved families whose members made speeches at previous ceremonies have given approval for new ways to mourn those who died in the quake, according to a city government official. “While mourning those who died, we’d also like to pass down lessons learned in the disaster to the next generation, thus helping prepare for the next such incident,” Kesennuma Mayor Shigeru Sugawara said.

In Iwate Prefecture, eight of the nine municipalities that have held the ceremony every year will continue to do so. The prefectural government has designated March 11 by ordinance as “a day to hand down memories of the tsunami damage in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.”

“We don’t consider the 10th anniversary to be a juncture and will continue our memorial service in the spirit of not letting memories of the disaster fade away,” said an official of Kuji City in the prefecture.

In Fukushima Prefecture, evacuation orders are still in effect in some areas since they were issued in the wake of the accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Here, nine of 10 municipalities plan to continue ceremonies. In Futaba, where the entirety of which remains under an evacuation order, a town government official said, “We’d like to continue ceremonies until our residents return home.”

An 81-year-old man who was evacuated to Tokyo from the town said, “We need a ceremony to recognize and hand on memories of the quake disaster and the nuclear accident.”

Last year, about 60 people attended the ceremony, but the number is expected to decrease due to restrictions on attendance as part of measures to cope with the novel coronavirus.