Japan on Thursday marks 10 years since the worst natural disaster in the country's living memory: a powerful earthquake, deadly tsunami and nuclear meltdown that traumatised a nation.

Search continue in Miyagi as loved ones refuse to relinquish hope of finding them even a decade on Search continue in Miyagi as loved ones refuse to relinquish hope of finding them even a decade on Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro NOGI

Around 18,500 people were killed or left missing in the disaster, most of them claimed by the towering waves that swept across swathes of the northeast coast after one of the strongest quakes ever recorded.

The ensuing nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant blanketed nearby areas with radiation, rendering some towns uninhabitable for years and displacing tens of thousands of residents.

Graphic on the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Graphic on the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Photo: AFP / John SAEKI

The day will be full of private and public ceremonies, with a minute's silence marked nationwide at 14.46 local time, the precise moment a 9.0-magnitude quake struck on March 11, 2011, triggering the disaster.

The nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant blanketed nearby areas with radiation The nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant blanketed nearby areas with radiation Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro NOGI

On Wednesday and Thursday there were searches in Miyagi and Fukushima regions for those still missing, as loved ones refuse to relinquish hope of finding them even a decade on.

The chances of success may appear slim, but just last week the remains of a woman missing since the tsunami were identified, in what her surviving son described as a chance to process his emotions and move forward.

Some towns were rendered uninhabitable for years Some towns were rendered uninhabitable for years Photo: AFP / Mike CLARKE

In Tokyo, a slimmed-down ceremony observing virus rules will be held at the national theatre, with speeches delivered by Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

People (top) evacuated by boat down a road flooded by the tsunami waves in the city of Ishinomaki on March 12, 2011; and the same area (bottom) is pictured nearly 10 years People (top) evacuated by boat down a road flooded by the tsunami waves in the city of Ishinomaki on March 12, 2011; and the same area (bottom) is pictured nearly 10 years Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro NOGI

Tokyo and surrounding areas are currently under a virus state of emergency, so the audience invited to the event will be smaller than usual.

The virus will also affect events elsewhere, including an annual prayer gathering held on top of the imposing sea walls in the town of Taro in Iwate.

Japan on March 11, 2021 marks 10 years since the worst natural disaster in the country's living memory -- the massive earthquake, deadly tsunami and nuclear meltdown which together killed over 18,400 people Japan on March 11, 2021 marks 10 years since the worst natural disaster in the country's living memory -- the massive earthquake, deadly tsunami and nuclear meltdown which together killed over 18,400 people Photo: JIJI PRESS / STR

Participants usually hold hands as they pray for those lost in the tsunami, but this year they will observe social distancing as they remember the dead.

Yuto Naganuma looks silently as the cold sea breeze sweeps over the crumbling walls of the school where his little brother was lost in Japan's devastating 2011 tsunami.
Ten years on, Naganuma and others like him form a generation whose young lives were s Yuto Naganuma looks silently as the cold sea breeze sweeps over the crumbling walls of the school where his little brother was lost in Japan's devastating 2011 tsunami. Ten years on, Naganuma and others like him form a generation whose young lives were shaped by what is known in Japan as the triple disaster: a powerful earthquake that sparked a terrifying tsunami and the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Photo: AFPTV / Quentin TYBERGHIEN

The anniversary is being marked just two weeks before the Olympic torch relay kicks off in Fukushima prefecture, nodding to efforts to cast the event as the 'Reconstruction Games'.

The pandemic has cast a long shadow over the Olympics, forcing their unprecedented year-long postponement, but the government and organisers are hoping the relay will bring the spotlight back to the region.

Nayuta Ganbe in Miyagi's Sendai city speaks regularly at events about disaster prevention, sharing his experience of the tsunami, but he usually marks the anniversary privately.

"I had never wanted to think about the disaster, not on March 11," the 21-year-old told AFP recently.

"It's the day when I lost my classmates. People died before my eyes. March 11 is a day that I hoped would never come again, so it always pains me when March 11 comes around every year," he said.

But this year he has decided to participate in an event on the anniversary, hoping it will help him with the ongoing work of processing the trauma he experienced.

"I am hoping that I will be able to face the disaster with a new perspective exactly 10 years on."

For many, the anniversary will be a moment for private reflection on a tragedy that continues to reverberate, with tens of thousands of people who evacuated fearing radiation still displaced and around two percent of Fukushima still off-limits.

Reverend Akira Sato, who ministered at several churches that remain in no-go areas around the Fukushima plant, plans to visit one of the abandoned churches and reflect.