A man offers a flower at a makeshift altar to mourn for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami during a…
A man offers a flower at a makeshift altar to mourn for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami during a special memorial event in Tokyo, March 11, 2020.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the country in a moment of silence Tuesday on the ninth anniversary of the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed at least 18,000 people.

Abe and his Cabinet ministers gathered in his office in Tokyo and held a silent prayer at the exact moment a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the country's northeastern coast on March 11, 2011.

FILE - An aerial view shows the No. 3 reactor building at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, July 18, 2013.

The quake triggered a massive tsunami that swept over the region and swamped the Fukushima nuclear power plant, damaging the plant's cooling system and causing a meltdown of its three reactors, making it the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. More than 160,000 people were forced to to flee their homes, many of whom have never returned.

The observance in Abe's office was held after the prime minister canceled the annual official public observance due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus, which has sickened at least 1,200 people and killed at least 12.

But hundreds of people gathered at Tokyo's Hibiya Park Wednesday for a solemn observance of the anniversary, many of them wearing protective face masks.

The Japanese government partially lifted an evacuation order last week for the town of Futaba, one of the many towns emptied during the Fukushima disaster.  The decision came after organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics announced that Futaba has been added to the route of the traditional Olympic torch relay, which begins on March 26.