March 11, 2013— -- A moment of silence in Japan marked the second anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and triggered the country's worst nuclear disaster.
At a memorial ceremony in Tokyo today, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko joined victims in attendance, bowing their heads at 2:46 p.m. local time, the moment the magnitude-9.0 quake struck.
In coastal towns destroyed by the devastating waves, residents faced the ocean in prayer, as they have every 11th day of the month.
"Two years later, I have found some strength," said Rin Yamane, who lost her mother to the tsunami. "I feel like I can move forward, even if it's just a little."
Then/Now: The 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan
Two years after the triple disasters, more than 300,000 people remain displaced, frustrated by the slow pace of recovery. Most live in cramped, prefabricated homes awaiting approval to begin rebuilding. But red tape has all but halted construction in cities along the devastated northeast coast.
About 1,000 homes are being built, according to the Reconstruction Ministry.
New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised swifter action since coming to office in December. On a message posted on YouTube today, he reiterated a vow to listen to victims, and act quickly.
"We must not forget the importance of every single day," he said. "We promise to accelerate reconstruction."
That process is expected to take up to a decade, but recovery in areas affected by the nuclear disaster will take much longer. Much of the 12-mile radius around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant remains off-limits, although officials say radiation levels have dropped roughly 40 percent in two years.
Residents of entire towns displaced by the radiation fallout remain locked out of their own homes, and have only been allowed to return for short visits with government permits.
In coastal communities, fishing bans remain in effect until radiation readings return to safe levels. A fish caught near the plant last month tested for record levels of cesium, 5,100 times the government safety standard.
"It's tough because the end is nowhere in sight," Tatsuo Niitsuma, a fisherman from Iwaki, told broadcaster NHK. "Until radiation levels go down, there is nothing we can do."
PHOTOS: Sendai: Before and After the Disaster in Japan
At the Fukushima plant, the complicated process of decommissioning the reactors has barely begun. About 3,000 workers, dressed in full-body suits and masks, are bused in every day to lay the groundwork to begin removing the fuel rods.
The cleanup is expected to begin this fall with reactor 4, where 1,500 fuel assemblies are stored inside a building badly damaged by a hydrogen explosion. In total, workers are tasked with removing 11,000 new and used fuel assemblies over the next 40 years, a process that is expected to top $100 billion.
Plant operator TEPCO has turned its most immediate attention to finding storage space for radioactive water used to cool the reactors. More than 900 tanks have been set aside to store the contaminated liquid, but they are filling up quickly.
In a rare show of legal force, 800 evacuees displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster filed a class-action lawsuit against TEPCO and the Japanese government today, demanding all land and homes be restored to pre-disaster conditions. Plaintiffs, which include fishermen, housewives and infants, call for an additional monthly payment of roughly $540, in addition to the compensation victims now receive from TEPCO.
"It's time for [TEPCO and the government] to finally take responsibility," lawyer Izutaro Managi said.