TOKYO -- Japan's revered emperor made his first visit Thursday to the disaster zone devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, kneeling on mats to commiserate with survivors who bowed in gratitude and wiped away tears.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited two evacuation shelters Thursday in Asahi city, where they spoke quietly with evacuees sitting on mats in the community centers that have become their temporary homes.
Asahi, about 54 miles east of Tokyo near the Pacific coast, is one of the southernmost areas to be heavily affected by the March 11 natural disasters, which killed up to 26,000 people and also set off a crisis of radiation leaks at a flooded nuclear plant.
One evacuee with Down syndrome, who has trouble speaking, conveyed his thoughts to the royal couple on paper. "I will keep striving," he wrote in a small notebook that he showed to the emperor and empress.
In Asahi, where some 3,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 13 people killed, the royal couple stood somberly gazing at one damaged area that had already been cleared of rubble.
Overall, nearly 140,000 people are still living in shelters after losing their homes or being advised to evacuate because of concerns about radiation leaking from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
Although Japanese officials have insisted the situation at the crippled plant is improving and that leaks into the atmosphere are declining, the crisis has dragged on, accompanied by a nearly nonstop series of mishaps and aftershocks of the 9.0-magnitude quake that have impeded work in clearing debris and restoring the plant's disabled cooling systems.
The setbacks are angering and frustrating residents whose lives have been derailed by the crisis.
"I'm physically and mentally worn out," said Yoshihisa Kato, a 66-year-old noodle shop owner in the town of Kawamata, which is about 28 miles northwest of the plant and in an area where officials have urged people to evacuate over radiation concerns.
"I've been going to funerals almost everyday because many elderly people in my neighborhood have died due to shocks and exhaustion," said Kato, whose business has dried up as residents have fled the area.
Japan acknowledged this week that overall leaked radioactivity already has catapulted the crisis into the highest severity on an international scale, on a par with Chernobyl, though still involving only a tenth of the radioactivity emitted in that 1986 disaster.
Despite the high overall accumulation of contamination, police said a decline in leaks into the atmosphere around the plant in recent days have allowed them to enter a six-mile radius around the complex for the first time in their search for tsunami victims.
Police in white suits gingerly picked through rubble Thursday for up to 1,000 bodies believed lodged in tsunami debris around the plant, said a police officer who gave only his surname, Sato.
"We need to work very carefully so as not to rip our radiation suits with the debris, metal and chunks of concrete scattered everywhere in the zone," Sato said in a telephone interview.
"Many families have asked us to search for their missing loved ones. I want to recover bodies as quickly as possible and hand them over to their families," he said.
So far, only about 13,500 bodies have been found in the disaster, although nearly twice that number are believed dead. Some of the missing may never be found because the tsunami likely pulled bodies out to sea.
Nuclear officials on Thursday detailed a glitch in the cooling of spent fuel at one of the plant's reactor buildings, in a reminder of the varied challenges in stabilizing the troubled plant.
Water inadvertently sprayed into an overflow tank prompted a false reading that the main pool was full when it wasn't. That prompted workers to suspend the injection of water into the main pool for several days until Wednesday, when spraying resumed. Strong aftershocks might also have affected the readings, officials said.
The suspension of spraying allowed temperatures and radiation levels at the building to rise, though the rods were still believed to have been covered with water, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
"I believe fuel rods in the pool are largely intact, or still keeping the normal shape of what they should look like," Nishiyama said Thursday. "If they were totally messed up, we would have been looking at different sets of numbers from the water sampling."
Three of the plant's reactors also have about 20,000 metric tons EACH of stagnant, radiation-contaminated water and it is proving difficult to reduce the amount spilling from the reactors, Nishiyama said.
Until cooling systems can be fully restored, flooding the reactors with water is the only way to help prevent them from overheating, but those many tons of water, tainted with radioactivity, pose a separate threat.