Many municipalities hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami are scaling back their memorial events a year after the 10th anniversary of the disaster, according to an Asahi Shimbun survey.
The Asahi Shimbun surveyed 35 coastal cities, towns and villages in hardest-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures and found only 18 of them plan to hold ceremonies this year to mourn the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
Some cited concerns for the mental health of bereaved families tasked with making public speeches for the ceremonies, while others are trying to find new ways to mark the tragedy.
In Miyagi Prefecture, 13 municipalities have marked March 11 with memorial services every year. This year, 11 of them will cancel the events.
Onagawa decided to only set up a stand where mourners can offer flowers after marking the 10th anniversary of the disaster last year. The town said many locals, including the association of heads of the administrative districts and the business community, were in favor of scaling down the annual ceremony.
Shichigahama will not hold its service this year, as many bereaved families said in the town’s survey that they want to reduce the frequency of the event to only every few years.
But Ishinomaki and Higashi-Matsushima will hold their ceremonies on March 11 as usual.
“It’s only natural for the hardest-hit municipality to (hold the event to) offer prayers at the memorial monument when thinking about the feelings of the bereaved families,” said Ishinomaki Mayor Masami Saito.
In Iwate Prefecture, eight municipalities will hold memorials this year, but only Otsuchi and Kamaishi will ask bereaved families to speak on behalf of other families during the events.
In Rikuzentakata, some 1,800 people died in the disaster, the largest number among municipalities in the prefecture. This year, the city decided not to ask bereaved families to give speeches during the ceremony out of concern for their mental stress.
In Fukushima Prefecture, eight of 10 coastal municipalities will hold the events this year.
Minami-Soma, which had the highest death toll from the disaster in the prefecture at 1,156, will cancel the usual speeches by bereaved families for the first time. The city used to pick one of the three districts in rotation to ask the families there to give speeches for the occasion, but it failed to find anyone willing to accept the request this year.
“It is getting harder for us every year to find bereaved families who can take on the role,” said a city official. “Many of them declined to give speeches because they don’t want to speak in front of a large audience or don’t like being interviewed.”
Some municipalities chose to offer other ways of mourning the victims instead.
Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, will only set up a stand where mourners can lay flowers.
A city official said it can help the city to better pass on the memories of the disaster rather than just holding the ceremony, where attendance is largely limited to the invited bereaved families.
The official added that more people turned up to offer prayers in 2020, when the city canceled the ceremony and only installed a stand as a precaution against the novel coronavirus.
Kesennuma in the prefecture plans to hold a panel discussion themed on commemoration and disaster preparedness instead of the annual service.
“It’s our duty to pass on the memories of the disaster to the next generation, as they are increasingly fading away,” said Kesennuma Mayor Shigeru Sugawara.
Other municipalities decided not to hold their services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, previously announced that it would hold its ceremony only to later cancel it.
Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, will limit attendance to town officials and guests this year, but plans to allow anyone to attend the event once the spread of the coronavirus subsides.
“People are still dying every year due to psychological and other stresses caused by the disaster,” said a town official. “It is not over yet.”