March 6, 2014 12:00 am JST

Three years on

Japan's worst disaster since World War II still looms large

Few had felt anything like it before. On March 11, 2011, the ground beneath residents of East Japan -- from the Tohoku region in the northeast down to the capital, Tokyo -- seemed to give way. Now known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, that day's disaster did not end with the first big shake. Soon came the aftershocks, the waves of death and a once-in-a-generation nuclear disaster.

     The country will remember the victims of the tragedy on the third anniversary, March 11. Taking stock of the scale of the calamity is difficult. Nearly 20,000 lost their lives or went missing, many to the giant tsunamis that engulfed the coastline. The waves also damaged or destroyed 400,000 homes and wreaked havoc on infrastructure. That tells part of the story. The suffering of survivors who lost family members or saw their homes wrecked is impossible to measure.

     Three years on, Japan continues the complicated task of rebuilding communities, as it tries to tame the hobbled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and clean up the rubble the waves left in their wake. Reconstruction and revitalization are gaining momentum. Of the 470,000 forced to leave their homes immediately after the quake, around 200,000 had returned to their communities by January 2014. But 100,000 remain in temporary housing, former residents of towns that were already graying with shrinking populations before the disaster. It also remains uncertain when some Fukushima Prefecture residents will be able to return home -- if ever.

     Japan's post-disaster reconstruction initiative is entering a new stage. Other Asian countries that are also frequently struck by natural calamities are watching the recovery process closely.