TOKYO – As the world commemorated the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, Sunday was doubly significant for Japan. It marked six months since the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, a date now seared in the national consciousness.
Up and down the hard-hit northeast coast, families and communities came together to remember victims. Monks chanted. Survivors prayed. Mothers hung colorful paper cranes for their lost children.
At precisely 2:46 p.m., they stopped and observed a minute of silence. March 11 changed everything for them and their country.
The magnitude-9.0 earthquake produced the sort of devastation Japan hadn't seen since World War II. The tsunami that followed engulfed the northeast and wiped out entire towns. The waves inundated the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, triggering the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
Some 20,000 people are dead or missing. More than 800,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed. The disaster crippled businesses, roads and infrastructure. The Japanese Red Cross Society estimates that 400,000 people were displaced.
Half a year later, there are physical signs of progress.
Much of the debris has been cleared away or at least organized into big piles. In the port city of Kesennuma, many of the boats carried inland by the tsunami have been removed. Most evacuees have moved out of high school gyms and into temporary shelters or apartments.
The supply chain problems that led to critical parts shortages for Japan's auto and electronics makers are nearly resolved. Industrial production has almost recovered to pre-quake levels.
But beyond the surface is anxiety and frustration among survivors facing an uncertain future. They are growing increasingly impatient with a government they describe as too slow and without direction.
Masayuki Komatsu, a fisherman in Kesennuma, wants to restart his abalone farming business.
But he worries about radiation in the sea from the still-leaking Fukushima plant and isn't sure if his products will be safe enough to sell. He said officials are not providing adequate radiation information for local fisherman.
"I wonder if the government considers our horrible circumstances and the radiation concerns of people in my business," said Komatsu, who also lost his home.
Another resident, 80-year-old Takashi Sugawara, lost his sister in the tsunami and now lives in temporary housing. He wants to rebuild his home but is stuck in limbo for the time being.
"My family is not very wealthy, and I only wish that the country would decide what to do about the area as soon as possible," Sugawara said.
He might be waiting for a while. The Nikkei financial newspaper reported this week that many municipalities in the hardest-hit prefecture of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima have yet to draft reconstruction plans.
Of the 31 cities, towns and villages severely damaged by the disaster, just four have finalized their plans, the Nikkei said. The scale of the disaster, the national government's slow response and quarrels among residents have delayed the rebuilding process.
Workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant are still struggling to meet a goal of bringing it to a cold shutdown by early next year.
"We are barely keeping the reactors under control and the situation is still difficult," Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency spokesman Yoshinori Moriyama said in Tokyo.
In Fukushima city, dozens of citizens rallied Sunday outside a government-backed international conference at which scientists agreed that the radiation danger from the nuclear plant was far less than Chernobyl. The protesters accused conference organizers of trying to underestimate the risk for children.
Citizens also demonstrated in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where thousands of anti-nuclear protesters demanded that the country abandon nuclear power. Activists circled the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry holding banners saying, "Nuclear power? Goodbye."
Criticism of the government's handling of the disaster and nuclear crisis led former Prime Minister Naoto Kan to resign. Former Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda took over nine days ago, becoming Japan's sixth new prime minister in five years.
He spent much of Saturday visiting Miyage and Iwate prefectures, promising more funding to speed up recovery efforts and trying to shore up confidence in his administration.
But the trip was overshadowed later in the day by his first big political embarrassment. Noda's new trade minister Yoshio Hachiro resigned, caving into intense pressure after calling the area around the nuclear plant "a town of death," a comment seen as insensitive to nuclear evacuees.
Public support for the new government started out strong, with an approval rating of 62.8 percent in a Kyodo News poll released last Saturday. Hachiro's resignation will likely translate into a drop and new doubts about Noda's ability to lead.
Regardless of politics, what's clear is that the road ahead will be long.
"Given the enormous scale of the destruction and the massive area affected, this will be a long and complex recovery and reconstruction operation," Tadateru Konoe, the Red Cross president, said in a statement. "It will take at least five years to rebuild, but healing the mental scars could take much longer."