TOKYO, March 11 (Reuters) - Japan marked the sombre nine-year anniversary of devastating natural disasters and a nuclear accident on Wednesday as official commemorations and vigils were canceled because of fears over the spread of the coronavirus.
The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi plant, 220 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
The natural disasters and meltdowns at the Fukushima plant forced hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday lauded the recovery efforts under way in Japan's northeast, but acknowledged the challenges that remained in providing psychological care and other services to evacuees.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will hold a small memorial ceremony in the afternoon and observe a moment of silence at the time the 2011 disaster struck.
"I think there were other ways to handle (the memorial)," said Natsumi Hoshi, a 42-year old Tokyo resident, who was among a group of people gathered in a city park to lay flowers.
"I think people are still hurting," he said.
Despite the many signs of recovery in Japan's northeast, some residents are still unable to live in the areas closest to the Fukushima plant. Radiation levels in such areas remain high despite repeated decontamination efforts.
"I think the memory (of the disaster) is fading away," said Masahiko Sano, a 47-year old company owner, who also joined the event at the park.
The government called off a memorial event that was scheduled for Wednesday as Japan sought to contain a widening outbreak of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The country has closed schools, theme parks and zoos, as part of its wider effort to scale back public events and mass gatherings to slow the transmission of the virus.
Japan has nearly 1,300 cases, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined near Tokyo last month. The virus has infected more than 111,000 people and killed more than 4,000 globally. (Reporting by Akira Tomoshige, Hideto Sakai and Kaori Kaneko Writing by Mari Saito. Editing by Gerry Doyle)