THE BIG READ: Still a long way to go
It's been more than a year since Japan's unprecedented earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, but people in the affected areas are still scouring the coast in search of the bodies of their loved ones.
At least 15800 people were confirmed killed, thousands of others were injured and more than 3200 are still missing.
The majority of those killed were swept away by the tsunami, a wall of water 7m high that devastated three prefectures - Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate - along a 400km stretch of coast on March 11 last year.
''Nearly 90% of the people killed by this disaster were killed by the tsunami. They basically drowned," said Noriyuki Shikata, who is the government's director of global communications.
The magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami disrupted the power supply to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, 240km northeast of Tokyo, triggering a meltdown that resulted in mass evacuations, the establishment of a 20km exclusion zone around the plant, and unprecedented demonstrations against nuclear power.
The government said in December that a state of "cold shutdown" had been achieved at the power station after protracted clean-ups, but reports as late as last month said radiation levels at the No2 reactor were still life-threateningly high.
All but one of Japan's 54 nuclear power stations are offline pending the outcome of stringent ''stress tests" ordered by the government.
Japan is also conducting a review of its energy policy which is likely to result in less reliance on nuclear power as alternatives, including solar and wind power, are pursued.
The tsunami devastated factories and infrastructure in the northeast, disrupting critical parts of the global supply chain.
Electricity and transport systems were quickly repaired, many factories were rebuilt and supply chains have recovered almost to pre-disaster levels.
Tourism, which slumped last year, is also slowly picking up.
But thousands of jobs were lost due to the disaster and a key challenge will be to get people in the affected areas working again to stem the exodus from the relatively underpopulated northeast.
The central government has pledged almost ¥19-trillion for the reconstruction of the disaster areas. On the ground, a massive clean-up is under way - millions of tons of debris have already been collected, while huge piles of shattered houses and machinery and mangled cars dot the countryside, waiting to be removed.
Almost 325000 people who were evacuated or fled the tsunami are living in temporary, prefabricated homes located in hundreds of temporary housing centres.
''We learned a lesson from 17 years ago when there was a big earthquake - so many of the people who had been evacuated felt isolated, even suicidal," said Tsuneaki Iguchi, mayor of Iwanuma City.
Young volunteers at the centres play an important role in helping to keep the evacuees' spirits up.
The national government, which has set up a reconstruction agency to help regional and local authorities rebuild the affected areas, hopes the bulk of the process will be completed within five years.
Another key challenge will be to ensure that permanent houses are built in areas where they cannot be engulfed by future tsunamis.
''We are trying to realise the relocation of residents in coastal areas to higher ground,'' said Shikata. ''At the same time, people have to make a living - fishermen for example - so what we are aiming to do is build residential compounds where people can live on the higher floors.''
Iguchi said the central government is financing the construction of a 7.2m high dyke along almost 10km of the shoreline in Iwanuma City, part of it atop an existing, smaller dyke that failed to keep out the killer wave.
A canal on the landward side of the dyke and the raising of roads in the city will complete its defences against future freak waves.
In the area around Sendai airport - which is operational again - about 1300 people lost their jobs as factories were engulfed by the tsunami. But, said Iguchi, some plants were rebuilt and 1000 people got employment again.
Last month, authorities in Miyagi said the sale of sea bass caught in Sendai Bay, about 100km from the stricken nuclear plant, would be suspended, local reports said.
This was after some bass were found to have extremely high levels of radioactive cesium.
But other fish species caught off the coast in the Miyagi prefecture also appear to have been contaminated.
In the devastated fishing town of Ogatsu, scallop farmer Hatsuko Kondo told visiting South African journalists that her husband had been told that the district fish market would no longer buy flatfish (flounder) from local fishermen as they had been "contaminated by Fukushima". Kondo, 60, her husband and son had been cultivating scallop in the local river mouth for the past 15 years, but the tsunami swept away all their nets.
In Ishinomaki City, Wakako Nakada survived the killer wave, along with her daughter, Miho, 32, and her grandchildren, Keita, 4, and Uta, 2, by driving away at high speed on hearing the tsunami warning.
She is grateful that her home was only partially damaged and has been able to move back in after it was refurbished, courtesy of an emergency government grant.
But Nakada has been battling to make ends meet since the disaster.
''Life has got a lot harder. Before I was working just about every day. Now it's only twice a week," she said.
- Jepson was in Japan as a guest of the government