TOKYO -- Amid growing dissatisfaction with the slow pace of recovery, Japan marked the second anniversary Monday of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing and has displaced more than 300,000.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the government intends to make "visible" reconstruction progress and accelerate resettlement of those left homeless by streamlining legal and administrative procedures many blame for the delays.
"I pray that the peaceful lives of those affected can resume as soon as possible," Emperor Akihito said at a somber memorial service at Tokyo's National Theater.
At observances in Tokyo and in still barren towns along the northeastern coast, those gathered bowed their heads in a moment of silence marking the moment, at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake – the strongest recorded in Japan's history – struck off the coast.
Japan has struggled to rebuild communities and to clean up radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, whose reactors melted down after its cooling systems were disabled by the tsunami. The government has yet to devise a new energy strategy – a central issue for its struggling economy with all but two of the country's nuclear reactors offline.
About half of those displaced are evacuees from areas near the nuclear plant. Hundreds of them filed a lawsuit Monday demanding compensation from the government and the now-defunct plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, for their suffering and losses.
"Two years after the disasters, neither the government nor TEPCO has clearly acknowledged their responsibility, nor have they provided sufficient support to cover the damages," said Izutaro Managi, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
Throughout the disaster zone, the tens of thousands of survivors living in temporary housing are impatient to get resettled, a process that could take up to a decade, officials say.
"What I really want is to once again have a `my home,' " said Migaku Suzuki, a 69-year-old farm worker in Rikuzentakata, who lost the house he had just finished building in the disaster. Suzuki also lost a son in the tsunami, which obliterated much of the city.
Further south, in Fukushima prefecture, some 160,000 evacuees are uncertain if they will ever be able to return to homes around the nuclear power plant, where the meltdowns in three reactors spewed radiation into the surrounding soil and water.
The lawsuit filed by a group of 800 people in Fukushima demands an apology payment of 50,000 yen ($625) a month for each victim until all radiation from the accident is wiped out, a process that could take decades. Another 900 plan similar cases in Tokyo and elsewhere. Managi said he and fellow lawyers hope to get 10,000 to join the lawsuits.
Evacuees are anxious to return home but worried about the potential, still uncertain risks from exposure to the radiation from the disaster, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.
While there have been no clear cases of cancer linked to radiation from the plant, the upheaval in people's lives, uncertainty about the future and long-term health concerns, especially for children, have taken an immense psychological toll on thousands of residents.
"I don't trust the government on anything related to health anymore," said Masaaki Watanabe, 42, who fled the nearby town of Minami-Soma and doesn't plan to return.
Yuko Endo, village chief in Kawauchi, said many residents might not go back if they are kept waiting too long. Restrictions on access are gradually being lifted as workers remove debris and wipe down roofs by hand.
"If I were told to wait for two more years, I might explode," said Endo, who is determined to revive his town of mostly empty houses and overgrown fields.
A change of government late last year has raised hopes that authorities might move more quickly with the cleanup and reconstruction.
Since taking office in late December, Abe has made a point of frequently visiting the disaster zone, promising faster action and plans to raise the long-term reconstruction budget to 25 trillion yen ($262 billion) from 19 trillion yen (about $200 billion).
"We cannot turn away from the harsh reality of the affected areas. The Great East Japan Earthquake still is an ongoing event," Abe said at the memorial gathering in Tokyo. "Many of those hit by the disaster are still facing uncertainty over their futures."
The struggles to rebuild and to cope with the nuclear disaster are only the most immediate issues Japan is grappling with as it searches for new drivers for growth as its export manufacturing lags, its society ages and its huge national debt grows ever bigger.
Those broader issues are also hindering the reconstruction. Towns want to rebuild, but they face the stark reality of dwindling, aging populations that are shrinking further as residents give up on ever finding new jobs. The tsunami and nuclear crisis devastated local fish processing and tourism industries, accelerating a decline that began decades before.
Meanwhile, the costly decommissioning the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant could take 40 years as its operator works on finding and removing melted nuclear fuel from inside, disposing the spent fuel rods and treating the many tons of contaminated wastewater used to cool the reactors.
Following the Fukushima disaster, Japan's 50 still viable nuclear reactors were shut down for regular inspections and then for special tests to check their disaster preparedness. Two were restarted last summer to help meet power shortages, but most Japanese remain opposed to restarting more plants.
The government, though, looks likely to back away from a decision to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s. Abe says it may take a decade to decide on what Japan's energy mix should be.
Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Emily Wang in Kesennuma, Japan, contributed to this report.
Related on HuffPost:
In this combination photo, Tayo Kitamura, 40, kneels in the street to caress and talk to the wrapped body of her mother Kuniko Kitamura, 69, after Japanese firemen discovered the dead body in the ruins of her home in Onagawa, Japan, on March 19, 2011, top, and a newly built home sits at the site of the now-cleared but destroyed area on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A few homes have been rebuilt in the year since an earthquake and tsunami roared across Japan's coastline, killing 19,000 people. But most communities remain unrecognizable, and their residents' futures uncertain. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
The tsunami that slammed into Japan's coastline one year ago was merciless, sparing little in its path. Homes were reduced to rubble, cars tossed about like toys, and boats -- such as this one photographed in Kesennuma, Japan, on March 28, 2011 -- flung from the sea into streets and onto roofs. The ocean's fury, and the earthquake that preceded it, left around 19,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, and sparked the worst nuclear crisis the world had seen in a quarter century. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this combination photo, Japanese vehicles pass through the ruins of the leveled city of Minamisanriku, Japan, on March 15, 2011, top, four days after the tsunami, and vehicles pass through the same area on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
The earthquake and tsunami, which killed around 19,000 people, delivered one of their worst hits to the once-scenic, blue-collar fishing town of Minamisanriku, Japan, photographed here on March 15, 2011. The wall of water spared little in its path, sweeping away nearly every business and every job, and leaving more than half the town's residents dead or homeless. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A year after the earthquake and tsunami people across Japan and leveled this town, there are hints of progress _ the main roads are free of debris, and some temporary houses have been built. But many in Minamisanriku, and elsewhere across Japan's battered coastline, remain in a hellish state of limbo. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this combination photo, a ship washed away by the tsunami sits in a destroyed residential neighborhood in Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, on March 28, 2011, top, and the same ship sits on the same spot on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A year after an earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country's coastline and killed around 19,000 people, many of the boats carried inland by the wall of water have been removed. But some, like this one, remain _ providing a stark reminder of nature's fearsome power. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder File)
One year later, more than 3,200 people presumed killed in the earthquake and tsunami have yet to be found. They are among the 19,000 people who lost their lives on March 11, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this combination photo, Japanese residents of Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, pass through a road that was cleared by bulldozer through the ruins of the city on March 17, 2011, six days after the tsunami, top, and people cross the same street on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In the days after the earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan's coastal towns, the bulldozers began to arrive, clearing away the rubble that littered the roads, such as this street in Kesennuma, Japan, photographed on March 17, 2011. Those tasked with clearing away the wreckage faced a monstrous task: towering piles of twisted metal and wood, boats perched atop roofs, mountains of family heirlooms, sodden furniture and children's toys. They also faced the grim reality that many of the 19,000 people killed lay entombed in the rubble, waiting to be discovered. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
One year after a powerful tsunami battered Japan and killed around 19,000 people, the streets have been cleared and the wreckage removed from town centers. But the process of destroying all that debris has been slow, with much of it still sitting in huge mountains in temporary holding areas. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Also On The Huffington Post...
A 132-ton concrete dock from Japan has washed ashore at Oregon's Agate Beach State Park. Ripped loose from Japan during last year's tsunami, it's now drawing thousands of gawkers to the shoreline.