TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Survivors pledged to reconstruct their hometowns Saturday on the sixth anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in northeastern Japan, with many still struggling to rebuild their lives.
"I never imagined I would be living in temporary housing for six years," said Hirotoshi Masukura, a 61-year-old evacuee from an off-limits area near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where radioactive decontamination work could take decades.
Although the evacuation order will be lifted in part of his hometown of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture at the end of this month, Masukura has decided not to return due to illness.
"I won't be able to return even if I wish to do so. I want an environment in which I can live with peace of mind," he said at a shelter in the city of Fukushima.
In Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, a 62-year-old female nurse was among a group of people praying in light snowfall at a monument dedicated to the disaster victims.
She said her elder brother, a police officer, died while guiding residents from the tsunami. "I'm proud of my elder brother, who fulfilled his duty. But I want him to come back."
As of Feb. 13, 123,168 people remained displaced from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the three hardest-hit prefectures. Initially, 470,000 people fled in the wake of the disasters.
A government-sponsored memorial service was held at the National Theater in Tokyo, with a moment of silence observed at 2:46 p.m., when the magnitude-9.0 quake struck on March 11, 2011.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his address that reconstruction in the affected regions has "reached a new stage," citing restoration of infrastructure and the lifting of evacuation orders in Fukushima, which was hit by the world's worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl crisis.
"I would like to make a firm pledge here that the government will exert its united efforts to build a strong and resilient nation that is resistant to disasters," the prime minister said.
With the decommissioning of the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi complex expected to take up to 40 years, 39,598 former residents remain outside the prefecture.
Representing people who lost their family members in the disasters, Yoshinobu Ishii, a 72-year-old resident of Kawauchi in Fukushima, said in a message that his village is far from what it used to be as younger people have not come back due to concern about their children's education.
"I consider it to be our responsibility to gather our strength to promote the reconstruction and recovery of our community," he said.
Prince Akishino said his "heart aches deeply" when he thinks about those who are unable to return to their homes due to high levels of radiation.
"It is the hope of us all that each and every one of those who are in a difficult situation will not be forgotten or left behind and the day will come when they will once again live in peace and quiet."
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who were not present at this year's memorial service having attended since 2012, offered a moment of silence at their residence, according to the Imperial Household Agency.
Police, the Japan Coast Guard and volunteers conducted search operations Saturday for the remains of people still listed as missing along the coasts of the three prefectures.
The disasters left 15,893 people dead and 2,553 unaccounted for, according to the latest tally released by the National Police Agency.
Survivors remain vulnerable to physical and mental health problems. In the three prefectures, 3,523 people have died from causes linked to the disasters, including illness and suicide.
Abe's government and utilities are seeking to restart nuclear plants shut down following the disaster. Currently, three of Japan's 45 commercial nuclear reactors are operating.
Recent reports about the bullying of children displaced from Fukushima have also captured national attention, prompting the education ministry to launch a nationwide survey to investigate the issue.