US Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday praised Japan’s courage and resolve as he visited its tsunami-shattered coast, where American forces helped with a large-scale relief effort.
Biden, near the end of his Asian tour, is the top-ranking American official to travel to the disaster zone where the March 11 quake and tsunami claimed more than 20,000 lives and sparked the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“I am honored and truly humbled to have an opportunity to visit this place, to see so much devastation and tragedy,” said Biden, speaking at the airport of Sendai, one of the cities hardest-hit by the disaster.
The American vice president said that Japan’s response to what he called “this God-awful tragedy” had “demonstrated for the world to see so much heroism, courage and resolve and selflessness”.
Walking through the devastated landscape later, Biden saw a house that was reduced to a shell amid knocked-down pine trees and debris. He laid white flowers on a pile of rocks before observing a moment’s silence.
The United States, which has maintained bases across Japan since World War II, mobilized more than 20,000 troops and some 160 aircraft in disaster relief and recovery operations after Japan’s worst peace-time catastrophe.
One of the core achievements of the US “Operation Tomodachi” (Friend) was to clear Sendai’s international airport, where the tsunami had swept aircraft, cars, mud and debris across runways and into terminals.
Japan’s outgoing centre-left Prime Minister Naoto Kan earlier thanked Biden for his country’s “enormous assistance” and said he would like to “reiterate our gratitude” on behalf of Japan’s people.
The meeting was clouded by the fact that Kan, under fire for his post-disaster leadership, has only days left in office before he is set to make way next week for Japan’s sixth new premier in five years.
The US tsunami aid effort has helped rebuild relations which were long strained by a dispute over a US airbase on Japan’s Okinawa island.
Defense planners in both countries see Okinawa’s US bases as significant at a time when China is building up its naval forces and showing an increasing assertiveness in territorial disputes in nearby waters.
“We are a Pacific power. You are a Pacific power. We are allies, both economically and politically,” Biden told Kan. “It’s something that we value a great deal.”