Coronavirus: Japan Scales Back Triple Disaster Memorials

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Ninth anniversary of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown came as Japan reported biggest one-day rise in infections

The coronavirus outbreak has forced Japan to scale down events marking nine years since a powerful earthquake and tsunami killed more than 18,000 people along its north-east coast.

An annual public service in Tokyo to remember the victims of the March 2011 disaster was among a growing number of events called off, one day after the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said sports, cultural and other large gatherings must be postponed for another 10 days in an attempt to contain the spread. The main memorial service, at the capital’s National Theatre, is usually attended by members of the imperial family, politicians and the relatives of people who died.

The anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima came as Japan reported 59 new cases of Covid-19, its biggest one-day rise since the start of the outbreak, public broadcaster NHK said.

Total infections in Japan have risen to 1,278 including 696 passengers and crew from the Diamond Princess cruise ship – which was quarantined in the port of Yokohama last month – and 14 people repatriated from China at the start of the outbreak.

As of Wednesday, Japan’s death toll stood at 19 from the virus, including seven from the cruise ship.

“We have reached an extremely important moment in the prevention of any rapid spread of domestic infections,” Abe told a government task force on Wednesday, the Kyodo news agency reported. “For about 10 days until an expert panel makes a new assessment, I’d like to ask for people’s cooperation.”

Japan has closed schools, zoos, museums and theme parks, and drastically scaled back public events since the outbreak. Professional sport has been hit by delays to the start of the baseball, football and rugby seasons, and a major sumo tournament that opened in Osaka at the weekend is being held without spectators for the first time in the sport’s long history.

The coronavirus outbreak forced communities that were hardest hit by the tsunami to cancel or postpone memorial services, with some setting up altars for people to lay flowers.
  Abe, who announced the cancellation last week, said he would lay a wreath and observe moment’s silence at 2.46pm – the time the earthquake struck off the north-east coast – and deliver an address from his official residence.

The coronavirus outbreak looks certain to affect the start of the Japan leg of the Olympic torch relay later this month, with concern also mounting that the Tokyo Games, due to open on 24 July, may have to be cancelled or postponed.

Olympic organisers are reportedly considering scaling down the domestic section of the torch relay, which is due to begin on 26 March at J-Village, a sports complex located 20km south of the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Japan’s government is hoping the torch’s passage through areas of Fukushima will demonstrate that the region is recovering from the nuclear disaster. Many of the 160,000 evacuated residents have yet to return home, however, while work to decommission the nuclear plant has barely begun.

There are signs of progress across the disaster zone, where the vast majority of victims were killed by the tsunami. More than 90% of public housing in the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima is complete, Kyodo has reported, adding that a railway line closed since the disaster was due to fully reopen at the weekend.

About 48,000 people, mostly from Fukushima, have yet to return to their hometowns from among 470,000 people who were initially displaced by the disaster.

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