TOKYO – Japan’s beloved emperor dramatically took to the national TV airwaves Wednesday and buoyed the spirits of his disaster-stricken citizens, an extraordinary address before a nation grappling with the aftermath of an epic earthquake and a devastating tsunami and growing fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
“I truly hope the victims of the disaster never give up hope, take care of themselves, and live strong for tomorrow,” said the dignified and understated Emperor Akihito, a calm and poignant oration delivered from the Imperial Palace.
“Also, I want all citizens of Japan to remember everyone who has been affected by the devastation, not only today but for a long time afterwards – and help with the recovery.”
An address by a sitting emperor is usually reserved for times of extreme crisis or war. Emperor Akihito’s direct appeal to the public is considered exceptional in Japan and marks the first time that the emperor has spoken to the public after such a crisis.
The 77-year-old ceremonial but deeply revered chief of state underlined Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s earlier assertion that Japan was going through its worst crisis since World War II. It is not known whether he will visit survivors of the disaster, as he did in 1995 after the deadly quake in Kobe.
More than 12,000 people are dead or missing and several hundred thousand have been left homeless from Friday’s earthquake and tsunami.
The emperor delivered his speech on the same day that white smoke and a new blaze at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant added to radiation fears.
“Currently, the entire nation is putting forth its best effort to save all suffering people. However, under the severe cold weather, evacuees are having a very difficult time because they lack food, water, and energy sources,” he said.
“Also, I am deeply concerned that the current nuclear plant situation is critical. I truly hope that with so many people working together to help, the situation will not worsen.”
The blaze was discovered Wednesday morning in the No. 4 reactor building at the plant, a Tokyo Electric Power Company official told reporters. It renewed concern over spent fuel rods sitting in an uncovered pool inside, which would release dangerous radiation if they caught fire.
Even workers who remained at the plant evacuated temporarily as radiation levels there fluctuated “hour by hour,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Wednesday.
“But on the whole, it does not impose any health hazard,” Edano told reporters after levels had decreased Wednesday.
Also, tests revealed traces of radiation in tap water in Fukushima city, located 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Daiichi nuclear plant, the local government said Wednesday.
The Fukushima Prefecture’s nuclear department said amounts of radioactive cesium and iodine that are not harmful to the human body were found in water samples taken at 8 a.m. Wednesday (7 p.m. ET Tuesday).
Government officials said the traces found are connected with the nuclear plant. But a measurement of the tap water supply taken later in the day found no traces of iodine or cesium.
The latest concerns at the Fukushima plant came a day after another fire there and an explosion at the plant’s No. 2 reactor.
Japanese authorities could not rule out the possibility of a meltdown at the troubled reactors. Workers have been pumping sea water into reactors in an effort to prevent further damage.
A meltdown occurs when nuclear fuel rods cannot be cooled, thus melting the reactor core and causing a release of radioactivity. In the worst-case scenario, the fuel can spill out of the containment unit and spread toxic radioactivity through the air and water. That, public health officials say, can cause both immediate and long-term health problems, including radiation poisoning and cancer.
Officials were also monitoring reactors No. 5 and 6 at the plant, where cooling systems have raised concerns.
“The temperatures are rising, but we are doing our best to cool (them) down,” the chief Cabinet secretary said Wednesday.
The U.S. military said it has given Japan two water trucks to assist in cooling the reactors.
As the government and workers scrambled to stabilize the plant, the search continued for survivors from last week’s cruel combination of natural disasters.
By Wednesday night, the National Police Agency reported 4,255 deaths. Another 8,194 people are missing and 2,282 were injured, the agency said. The number of dead is expected to go up as rescuers reach more hard-hit areas.
Public broadcaster NHK has reported that 450,000 people were living in shelters, where people grieved over lost loved ones and worried about relatives who are missing across villages and towns inundated by the tsunami waves off the east coast of Honshu.
Thousands of people packed Narita International Airport in Tokyo, with some sitting on floors.
“We just headed for the mountains directly away from the nuclear power station,” Richard Struthers, who lives about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the Fukushima plant. He said he is “taking no chances” with his baby son.
Boris Suban of Moriya — about 209 kilometers (130 miles) from the nuclear plant — decided to travel across the country to Hiroshima Prefecture — a location he admits is ironic. U.S. planes dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
‘We thought that the reactor is not safe and too near,” Suban said. “Plus, if the panic spreads, we will be unable to leave Japan and get the full exposure sitting on our sofa.”
Meanwhile, across the country, emergency workers from Japan, foreign governments and international aid groups continued to scour tangled and displaced piles of debris, searching for survivors. Scores of countries, regions and international organizations have offered assistance, according to the Japanese foreign affairs ministry.
Rescue work is being complicated by the hundreds of aftershocks that have rocked Japan since Friday’s quake. The U.S. Geological Survey has reported several quakes with magnitudes of 6.0 or greater, and more than a dozen others greater than 5.0.
While agencies are working to raise money, donations have been slow to come. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper covering nonprofit organizations, says donations to nonprofit organizations have reached about $25 million so far. The total is far below the first four-day totals of other recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the crisis in Haiti, it said.
Wide-scale economic problems also loom, though some signs of progress surfaced in the stock market on Wednesday.
Japanese stocks rebounded, with the leading stock index recovering nearly 6% from a two-day plunge. The Nikkei 225 index, the most prominent measure of Tokyo market stocks, ended up 489 points, or 5.7%.
The massive quake was the strongest in recorded history to hit Japan, according to USGS records that date to 1900.
Amid the massive despair, tales of survival and euphoric relief emerged.
Akiko Kosaka, a student from Japan attending the University of California at Riverside, had lost all hope for her family in Minamisanriku, the fishing village where more than half of the 17,000 residents are missing and feared dead.
“I didn’t think they survived,” Kosaka, 20, told CNN in a tearful interview Tuesday. “I cried for three days — Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”
Then a friend in Japan told her about a 45-second YouTube video showing her family home as the only one standing amid the rubble. The video highlighted a young woman holding a sign to a TV news crew saying in Japanese “we are all safe.”
The woman was Kosaka’s sister.
“I screamed, and my host parents woke up and they thought it was really bad,” Kosaka said. “They asked what happened. And I said, ‘They survived! … I couldn’t believe it. It’s a miracle.”
But nerves remained frayed across Japan — even in the Tokyo area, which was spared the brunt of the natural disasters.
“We have got a different type of damage … lacking in petrol, food” and electricity, Kyohei Kiyota, a 22-year-old in Saitama Prefecture, said Wednesday. He said he’s terrified about possible radiation illness and often stays home or wears a mask on his face.
“In spite of this, we are fine so far,” he said.
To Kiyota and thousands like him, Emperor Akihito expressed his admiration.
“I am deeply impressed to see people who have survived, and are suffering from the biggest disaster, encourage themselves to live for tomorrow. This is so courageous.” (CNN)