The first flight in more than a month touched down Wednesday at a coastal airport swamped by Japan's monstrous tsunami, potentially boosting relief and recovery efforts in a battered region still grappling with the world's worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Staff at the Sendai airport stood on the tarmac waving as passengers emerged from a JAL Express flight emblazoned with the logo "Hang in there, Japan." It was the first flight since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 unleashed a 32-foot (10-meter) wall of water that raced across the airport's runways and slammed cars and aircraft into its terminals.
The area around the airport, which sits about half a mile (a kilometer) from the shoreline, remains a twisted wasteland of mud, uprooted trees and the remnants of smashed buildings and cars. Soldiers sift through the debris, looking for the bodies of the more than 15,000 people still missing after the twin disasters. The final death toll is expected to top 25,000.
The airport will handle only a few daytime flights for now and just one terminal is running, but its opening should help with relief efforts in regional communities virtually obliterated by the tsunami.
"We can only operate in a small area, but I think it's a great step toward recovery," said Naohito Nakano, an operations manager for Japan Airlines.
Hiroshi Abe, 41, whose parents are among the missing, was preparing to board a flight back to the western city of Osaka.
"There's not really anything I can do there now, so I'm flying home," Abe said. "Now that flights are open again I know it will be much easier for me to go back."
Japan's leaders are urging a return to normality, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan exhorting the public in a televised address to build an "even more marvelous country" and experts cautioning against a relapse into despair among the tens of thousands still living in shelters.
"Let's live normally without falling into excessive self-restraint," Kan said. "We must build a new future."
Nuclear safety officials and the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., reported no major changes Wednesday, a day after the government ranked the accident there at the highest possible severity on an international scale — the same level as Chernobyl.
The higher rating was open recognition that the nuclear crisis, caused when the tsunami washed out the plant's vital cooling systems, has become the second-worst in history, but it did not signal a worsening of the plant's status in recent days or any new health dangers.
Still, the changed deepened unease among residents forced to evacuate from a growing area affected by spewing radiation despite government efforts to play down any notion that the crisis poses immediate health risks.
Radioactive isotopes have been detected in tap water, fish and vegetables far from the facility. The government on Wednesday added wood-grown shiitake mushrooms that are raised outdoors to a list of vegetables not allowed to be shipped after high levels of radiation were detected in tests over the weekend.
Shipments of produce from 16 cities, towns and villages around Fukushima Dai-ichi have been banned.
Associated Press writers Shino Yuasa, Ryan Nakashima and Yuri Kageyama reported from Tokyo.