By Yoko Kubota
OFUNATO, Japan (Reuters) - With a minute of silence, tolling bells and prayers, Japan will on Sunday mark the first anniversary of an earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis that shattered public trust in atomic power and the nation's leaders.
A year after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake unleashed a wall of water that hit Japan's northeastern coast, killing nearly 16,000 and leaving nearly 3,300 unaccounted for, the country is still grappling with the human, economic and political costs.
Along the coast, police and coastguard officers, urged on by families of the missing, still search rivers and shores for remains even though the chances of finding any would appear remote. Without bodies, thousands of people are in a state of emotional and legal limbo.
Koyu Morishita, 54, lost his 84-year-old father, Tokusaburo, as well as his home and family-run fish factory in the port of Ofunato. Tokusaburo's body has not been found.
"I do cry a little bit every once in a while, but my true tears will come later, when I have time," Morishita said while visiting a memorial for his father at a hilltop temple above Ofunato, accompanied by his dog, Muku.
Like the rest of the country, Ofunato will observe a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. (0546 GMT) when the quake struck and then again, 33 minutes later when a 23-metre (75-foot) wall of water hit the town, killing 340 of its 41,100 residents and leaving 84 missing.
A "bell of hope" will toll and mourners will sail out to sea to release lanterns.
The Japanese people earned the world's admiration for their composure, discipline and resilience in the face of the disaster while its companies impressed with the speed with which they bounced back, mending torn supply chains.
As a result, the economy looks set to return to pre-disaster levels in coming months with the help of about $230 billlion in rebuilding funds agreed in rare cooperation between the government and the opposition.
"In recent history, Japan seized rapid economic expansion from the ashes and desolation of World War Two, and we built the most energy-efficient economy in the world in the aftermath of the oil shock," Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in an article published in the Washington Post.
"On the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, we remember that today we face a challenge of similar proportions."
"100 PEOPLE, 100 OPINIONS"
Yet people are increasingly sceptical about whether the political establishment is up to the task.
Politicians and bureaucrats drew fire for the chaotic response to the crisis at the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant and their failure to seize the moment and tackle a myriad of ills that have dogged Japan for two decades.
"If there are 100 people, there will be 100 opinions," said Morishita. "We are hoping that someone can lead us and show us hope and dreams. But that doesn't exist."
After a brief truce, politicians resumed business as usual: parliamentary squabbles that gave Japan its sixth leader in five years and now threaten to block important tax and welfare reforms and stall progress in dealing with other business.
"There is no leadership," said Hiroaki Oikawa, 56, another Ofunato resident who lost his two fish factories and his home.
Nine people from three generations of his family now live under one roof in temporary housing. Oikawa resumed operations at one of his factories last September and he is leading efforts to rebuild a shopping arcade.
"There are no politicians to whom we can leave things."
Anti-nuclear demonstrations planned across the country for the anniversary also serve as a reminder that many want bolder action than the government's preferred scenario of a gradual reduction in reliance on nuclear power.
Not a single community has agreed to restart reactors taken off line since the disaster, meaning all of Japan's 54 reactors may be shut by the middle of the year.
Slow progress in drawing up plans for the tsunami and radiation tainted region is deepening the misery of survivors, about 326,000 of whom are still homeless, including 80,000 evacuated from the vicinity of the Fukushima plant.
While the government declared the plant's reactors had reached "cold shutdown" in December, its dismantling and the clean-up of an area the size of Luxembourg will take decades at an incalculable cost using technologies yet to be developed.
Taxpayers, facing proposed sales tax increases to help fund the country's debt, will need to cough up tens of billions of dollars to prop up Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power -- widely attacked for ignoring the possibility of a disaster and for what critics say has been arrogance since.
($1 = 81.4000 yen)
(Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Linda Sieg and Robert Birsel)