IDENTIFYING AND SEARCHING FOR THE MISSING AND DEAD AFTER MARCH 11, 2011 TSUNAMI IN JAPAN

1,500 DENTISTS AND DNA HELP IDENTIFY THE DEAD

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As of March 2013, 132 bodies from the 2011 tsunami remained unidentified. About 80 percent of bodies discovered in the first six months after the disaster were identified by their appearances or belongings found on them. DNA tests were used to identify 80 percent of bodies found in September and later because many had become badly decomposed, according to the NPA. Reporting from Ishinomaki in July, John M. Glionna wrote Los Angeles Times, ‘since March, 500 bodies have turned up here, one or two each day. Every time one is found, the waiting families anxiously report to the coroner's office, believing this might be the day. But even the discovery of a body brings no immediate reprieve from the uncertainty. Most are so decomposed they're identifiable only through DNA analysis.”

About 1,500 dentists from all over Japan helped to identify the bodies of tsunami victims. Some were tsunami victims themselves. Some became ill from stress and sorrow. Reporting from Ishinomaki, Tomoko Koizumi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The dentists work in three-member teams to record relevant information about each body, such as the alignment of the teeth and any past dental work. The records are kept in files along with other information, such as where and when the body was found, personal belongings and physical characteristics. The files are used help victims' families confirm the identity of their relatives.” [Source: Tomoko Koizumi, Yomiuri Shimbun, April 20, 2011]

“The makeshift morgue still did not have electricity by mid-April and the inside was dark even in the daytime. Even though a month has passed since the quake, bodies continue to be brought in regularly. The facility stores hundreds of bodies and was frequently visited by people searching for missing relatives.” [Ibid]

“When people visit, the dentists stop their work.” One dentist recalled “a mother who held the body of her daughter for almost half a day. He said it seemed like the mother was trying to warm her daughter's cold body.” [Ibid]

“Dental associations normally cooperate with police investigations, but this is the first time for a large number of dentists to take on such a huge task.” "On top of the physical burdens, we're all exhausted mentally. The job comes with so much sorrow," Toshimitsu Ezawa, who heads a team of dentists from the Miyagi Prefecture Dental Association, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. Tohoku University in Sendai has dispatched 270 dentists to help identify bodies. The university said some of its dentists had experienced shock or fallen sick.

In addition to this police in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures compiled a database of DNA samples taken from relatives of people who remained unaccounted for following the disaster. Tens of thousands of samples were taken. As of May 2011 cell phone information revealed from cell phones found on bodies helped identify 279 bodies. In many cases police contacted cell phone providers and gave them serial numbers from the cell phones found on the bodies and providers provide personal dat on the phone owner. With that information family members were contacted and the bodies were identified,

In late June the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Of the more than 15,000 people who died in the disaster, 1,664 bodies had yet to be identified, the National Police Agency said. Obtaining DNA samples, such as hair, of people still unaccounted for is crucial if DNA analysis is to be used to determine if they are among the unidentified bodies. But finding such samples is difficult, as many of the people who remain missing had their houses washed away by the tsunami, taking away items that could be used to obtain DNA. So far only 38 bodies have been identified through DNA analysis, according to police. The agency has sent out a request for samples that could help identify people who remain missing.

2,383 Disaster Victims Identified by DNA Analysis

In December 2011, Kyodo reported: “A total of 2,383 victims or about 15 percent of people who died in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures have been identified by DNA analysis, a survey by the National Police Agency showed. Amid difficulties in identifying the victims as they were mostly people who died in the tsunami and many bodies were found after a lengthy period, police have collected DNA samples from more than 7,000 family members of missing victims and built a database. [Source: Kyodo, December 31, 2011]

According to the NPA, the number of victims found in the three hardest-hit prefectures in northeastern Japan totaled 15,773 as of Dec. 11 and 15,104 of them were identified. Of the 2,383 victims identified by DNA analysis, 2,245 were identified with help by physicality, teeth marks and belongings such as driver's licenses, while the other 138 were identified only by DNA analysis with their hair or other tissues remaining, the agency said.

With about 500 medical examiners and other officers sent from across the country to disaster-hit regions at the peak, about 1,500 officers worked to identify the victims. Police in the three prefectures also posted physicality, belongings and other information on unidentified victims on their websites, while police stations displayed the victims' photos taken in morgues to enable people to view them.

Nearly 10 months have passed since the disaster, but the three prefectural police departments plan to continue their search for the missing.

As 669 victims have yet to be identified, a Miyagi prefectural police official said while DNA analysis of such a large number of people is unusual, they would make efforts to identify more victims in order to return remains to their families.

Tale of Generous Mortician Made into Book

A mortician who voluntarily embalmed the bodies of people killed in the Great East Japan Earthquake so bereaved families could say goodbye to their loved ones is the subject of a recently published book. The book "Kokoro no Okuribito Higashi Nihon Daishinsai Fukugen Nokanshi--Omoide ga Ugokidasu Hi" (Farewell from the heart, The compassionate mortician of the Great East Japan Earthquake--A day when memories start moving) was published in early December by Kin-no-Hoshi Sha Co., a Tokyo-based publisher. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2011]

The book describes the activities of Ruiko Sasahara, a 39-year-old mortician from Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture. Sasahara manages a company that prepares bodies for funerals, but since March 11 she has donated her services by embalming more than 300 bodies in the disaster-ravaged areas of the prefecture.The book was written by Noriko Imanishi.

Sasahara taught herself to prepare bodies about five years ago. She said she wanted to become a mortician to help ease the grief of people who have lost someone special. "I wanted bereaved families' last memories of their loved ones to be of them with the best possible expression on their faces," she said.

Soon after the March 11 disaster, Sasahara encountered a girl's body at a temporary morgue. The body was covered in seaweed and shells, and the color of her skin had changed. She thought to herself, "[Restoring bodies] is the only way I can contribute," and decided to volunteer her skills to help prepare the numerous victims. Among hundreds, Sasahara restored the body of a high school girl, and those of a mother and her infant child. To make faces look like they had while they were alive, she sometimes had to add eyebrows or eyelashes. When she ran out of false eyelashes, Sasahara used her own hair. Many bereaved families who received Sasahara's services cried when they saw the restored faces of loved ones, and Sasahara was nearly overwhelmed with requests, sometimes sleeping in her car parked outside the temporary morgue.

Identifying the Dead from the Elementary School Tragedy in Ishinomaki

Reporting from Ishinomaki, John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, “Tatsuhiro Karino paused at the top of the muddy hill, took his wife, Masako, by the hand and led her slowly down to the ruins of the elementary school that entombed the body of their daughter, Misaki. Dwarfed by four mammoth cranes digging into the wreckage, the 40ish construction worker gently pulled a veil over his wife's face to shield her from the dust and whiff of death. [Source: :John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2011]

But he couldn't protect her from this: the grim task of locating the body of their 8-year-old child, among the 94 students and teachers killed when their school was leveled March 11 in nature's twin strike of shaking ground and torrential wave. The couple, who also lost their 11-year-old son, Tetsuya, in the devastation, joined a clutch of fellow parents asking the same maddening question:

Earlier in the day, while walking amid a small cadre of soldiers under gray skies, Tatsuhiro Karino had spotted something he both did and didn't want to see: the body of his son. "I saw his face and I knew it was him right away," he said. "I knelt down next to him and I told him that I already missed him."

Workers carried the boy's small frame up a muddy rise from the school, laying it beside several other covered bodies. Masako Karino calmly lifted the brown shroud from her child's face, and she and her husband moved their hands along the body, a silent gesture of reassurance, as if to say, "Everything is going to be OK, son." Then, slowly, they carried his body to a waiting truck. "He was so clever," Tatsuhiro said later as he sat on a curb consoling his wife. "He wanted to one day design computer games. He loved the cookies his mother made. I'll always remember that." Nearby, workers opened the shroud of each arriving corpse, wiping down the faces with water to help in the identification process, as hovering parents picked through recovered personal effects: a basketball, sports team photos, a row of prim red backpacks. Suddenly, one man dropped to his knees and wailed at the sight of a body being loaded into a truck.

Soon after bidding farewell to their son, the Karinos were once again holding hands, back amid the mountains of wreckage, looking for their second child. At one point, Tatsuhiro broke free and rushed to pull a twisted gray bicycle from the rubble, then turned away in silence. It wasn't Misaki's. "I travel in my job and I would call home every night and talk to her," he recalled. "She would say, 'Dad, I miss you. Come home.' " As the heavy machinery rumbled past, the couple continued their search, passing a broken wall bearing the inscription by Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa that had been hand-painted by students long before the tsunami. "We will not be beaten by the rain or the wind or the storms," it read.

Identifying the Dead at a Gym in Higashi-Matsushima

From a makeshift morgue in a primary school gym in Higashi-matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “There were 100 bodies in the gym. Most were covered with mud.People searching for missing relatives visited the gym again and again, inspecting the bodies one by one. A woman clung to the body of her 13-year-old daughter in anguish. “I'm sorry. It's Mom's fault,” she cried.” [Source: : Naoto Takeda, Tatsuya Imaoka and Shigeru Yamada, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 15, 2011]

“When the first tsunami hit the city... the woman was in a car with her daughter, Yuna Ogata. The car was suddenly sucked into a muddy torrent and submerged in the water. A neighbor broke a window of the car and rescued the woman, but the water soon washed away the vehicle with Yuna, a first-year middle school student, still trapped inside. The woman rushed to the gym when she heard Yuna's body had been found. “It's all my fault. I wish I could've died instead of her,” she said.” [Ibid]

‘setsuro Sugawara, 60, was wiping his dead son's face again and again at the gym. Sugawara cried as he pressed the arm of Ryo, 28, against his eyes. Sugawara's favorite thing to say to his son was, "I'm waiting for you to become more successful than me." Every time he heard this, Ryo would smile gently and say, “I will, Dad.” Sugawara said he and Ryo often watched foreign movies together. He loved watching films with his son and talking about them afterwards. Sugawara wrote Ryo's name and birthday on a piece of paper and calmly placed it on his son's body. On the paper, he also wrote, "It's too soon." Sugawara's wife, 53, and sister, 58, are still missing. “I hope I can find them as soon as possible,” Sugawara said.” [Ibid]

“Kikuko Ono, 72, identified her 98-year-old mother Suseko's body by the sneakers she always wore. Ono said wheelchair-bound Suseko was living at a nursing home near the gym. After the quake, Suseko evacuated the nursing home and took shelter at the gym, but the tsunami also hit the gym.” "I can't imagine how much pain she felt," Ono said. [Ibid]

Search for the Missing and Dead After the Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011

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Since the March 11 disaster, police officers have spent 550,000 man days searching for missing people in the three prefectures in the year after the disaster. This figure includes officers dispatched from other prefectures. After 3,254 bodies were discovered in April, the number found per month has fallen steadily. Only 60 were found in September, and fewer than 10 have been discovered each month since December. Four were found that month, but only one in January and nine in February.

As of March 23, 12 days after the earthquake and tsunami, 19,300 people had been rescued by the Self Defense Force (SDF, the Japanese military). Soldiers and other people involved in search and rescue operations though spent most of their time searching for the dead, often using their hands and poles to poke and search through mud and debris. Martin Fackler and Mark McDonald wrote in the New York Times, “Here in Natori, brightly clad searchers bent to their work---the police in navy blue, the handlers of sniffer dogs in orange, the military squads in camouflage. They made their way around marooned boats and collapsed houses, finding toys, torn bedding, tangled fishing nets and pieces of cars, toilets or pottery, all the mundane pieces of daily life, now broken. Occasionally, too, they found a body, sometimes already covered by a tarp. [Source: Martin Fackler and Mark McDonald, New York Times, March 15, 2011]

“Rescue teams from 13 countries pressed on with the searches. One used a German shepherd and a small spaniel in Yuriage. The shepherd would climb around the wreckage of homes and twisted hulks of cars, sniffing. If he started barking, the team sent in the spaniel, small enough to prowl around the crevices of the wreckage. In one case, the spaniel also barked. The team began digging in the debris, but found nothing. ''Is there anyone here? Is there anyone alive?'' They yelled as they dug. A member of the team said that there was now a scant chance of survivors, and the dogs were finding only corpses.” [Ibid]

“Off in the distance, a small cluster of buildings stood undamaged on the sad expanse of the mud flats. Outlined against the afternoon sky, they seemed like tombstones. Such was the rubble that soldiers used olive-drab power shovels and construction equipment to cut roads through the mountains of debris.

“In the air, helicopters shuttled back and forth constantly, part of a mobilization of some 100,000 troops... Several convoys could be seen on the road to Sendai, a larger city to the north. Some firefighters in Natori had arrived from as far away as the southern city of Hiroshima, reflecting the fact that rescuers had descended from across Japan.”

"We have found 50 bodies today and there'll be more," an officer in the self defence forces told the New York Times as his team took a quick lunchbreak. "We're putting more efforts into rescue elsewhere as there is very little chance of anyone surviving here." Kyodo reported that the bodies of hundreds of people killed by the quake and tsunami lie uncollected in the area near the Fukushima nuclear power plant plant because they were contaminated by radiation, leaving the police and morgue workers unable to safely handle them. The authorities are considering the use of mobile decontamination units to clean the bodies on the spot, Kyodo reported. [Source: New York Times, March 31, 2011]

An official in Kesennuma told the New York Times he was not worrying about the death toll for now. There is too much else to do. “Along the coast, everything is gone,” said Komatsu Mikio, the head of finance in Kesennuma. “It was entirely swept away. We’re not prioritizing the body recovery. We need to clear the roads, get electricity, get running water. That’s our main activity. And as we’re doing that, we’ll find the bodies.”

On April 1, the largest rescue mission ever carried out in Japan, 18,000 Japanese and 7,000 American personnel scoured a vast coastal area for 16,000 still listed as missing. Divers battled floating debris and 6 degree C waters to search for bodies in waters off devastated twins. On April 7, the search for missing began out side the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant by police officers in protective gear.

Search for the Missing and Dead in Sendai and Shintona

In the Sendai area, Damian Grammaticas of the BBC reported, “Search teams are combing through the flooded fields and wrecked villages looking for bodies. They use long probes to poke into the mud and the piles of flotsam dumped by the water. We watched as the teams waded out to a minivan that had been marooned in the middle of a field. Inside they found one more body, someone who had drowned in their car as they tried to escape. More than 200 bodies have been recovered in this area. [Source: Damian Grammaticas BBC News, March 13 2011]

John Garnaut, Sydney Morning Herald, “Further along, four men from the Japanese Self Defence Forces resume combing the reeds on each side of the river and poke into the mud with long poles after pulling out a bloated body...At the main hospital at Ishinomaki helicopters shuttle in the wounded. At first glance the scene is reassuring. The hospital is well staffed with medicos and volunteers from all over the country. While the corridors are full and patients are lined up outside, those with critical injuries are being fully catered for. But then the hospital director, Kazuie Ilnuma, explains: ''The tsunami either left people with very light injuries and some trauma, or they drowned.'' [John Garnaut, Sydney Morning Herald, March 14, 2011]

Guardian correspondent Jonathan Watts who is in Shintona, Miyagi wrote: “The nearby bay is filled with cars, concrete and half-sunken homes that have floated away from their foundations. A railway line has been ripped from the ground and twisted vertically like a garden fence. Cars and motorbikes lie broken and so roughly re-parked by the tsunami that some balance precariously on their bonnets. Emergency and media helicopters buzz overhead and the bereaved sob by the side of the road. The air is rich with the rotting smell of disaster and death.”

‘self-defence force personnel and rescue workers search for bodies amid the the mud. Their work is sporadically interrupted by earthquake alerts and tsunami warnings, but they do not have to look far. When found the dead are wrapped in blue tarpaulins and laid on military stretchers. In Shintona their numbers rose as quickly as the dozen or so rescue workers were able to find and carry them.”

Undersea robots were employed in the search for bodies but in the first few days anyway they didn’t find anything.

In mid April, police began searching for bodies within the 10-kilometer evacuation zone around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. About 4,400 police and military and Coast Guard other personnel in protective clothing carried out the searches when the mission was at its peak in June. . When bodies were found they were checked for radiation. If levels were high the bodies were decontaminated by pouring water on them.

Collecting the Dead After the Tsunami

Even for the most experienced rescue workers, looking for and collecting the dead is no easy task. "This is the most dreadful site that I have ever seen," a veteran member of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) said, while his colleagues were recovering a burned male body from the debris in the coastal city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, about one month after the disaster. He told Kyodo, "It is our duty to return (the bodies) to their families No matter how hard the work is, we want to respect that duty." Looking back at the early days of the rescue operations, a GSDF member said, "It was like hell...Bodies were everywhere, but we put priority on finding survivors." [Source: Kyodo, April 12, 2011]

Kyodo News described one group of 650 GSDF personnel that rescued more than 1,000 people in Ishinomaki and then began shifting their attention to seeking missing people. On one morning a team of 40 members took turns in search of bodies under rubble using a special stick, and collected six bodies following an eight-hour operation. Up to April 6, they collected a combined 585 bodies in the city. Among the bodies they faced were a newborn baby and a mother who held a child. They also found only parts of bodies. A senior member cannot forget a dead boy with a helmet who was recovered with his bicycle. "That was really painful...He must have been engulfed by the tsunami on his way home from school." [Ibid]

Some personnel sometimes cry even when they sleep, probably because they remember the distressing scenes in their dreams. A senior Self-Defense Forces official showed concern that personnel working in the disaster-hit areas may suffer mental damage, stressing the need to provide long-term mental care to them.

Collecting the Dead in Sendai

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North Japan Coastline Before
In Sendai two bodies were found inside the truck,Mark Magnier and Barbara Demick reported in the Los Angeles Times, “A team of eight soldiers struggled to remove the unidentified corpses from the truck's cab Sunday. They lifted them onto a soggy tatami mat, covered them with a blue and yellow blanket, then heaved the load onto their flatbed army truck.”[Source: Mark Magnier and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2011]

"Push it back farther,” Japanese Self-Defense Forces officer Tomonori Yoshinaga told the men. "We still have more to go.” A few minutes later, they found another body, rigor mortis fixing it in a sitting position, within the mess left by the earthquake and tsunami that slammed Sendai, a coastal city in northeast Japan, shortly after 2:30 p.m. Friday. [Ibid]

"This work is heartbreaking," said Yoshinaga, a large army phone system on his back, before heading off to the next site. Behind an airport warehouse, workers pointed to a body in a ditch. As an ambulance crew with a stretcher removed what appeared to be the remains of a middle-aged man, one of his arms poked out from under a fuzzy pink blanket as though he had been holding a cellphone. “We are under orders to find people. Survivors or victims. I don't think there is anybody alive but we will look,” said one military officer in uniform. [Ibid]

"Today's the first day the water receded enough to search,” she said, her boots mired in mud. “But we're only finding bodies. I don't see much hope anyone could live through this. We'll probably find hundreds more bodies under there before we're done.” A few hundred yards away, Fumiyo Saito, 70, a retiree, emerged from a battered house. He had spent the afternoon looking for his missing cousin and brother-in-law. The house was badly damaged, but was still standing. “That gives me a little hope they're still alive.” he said.”

Identifying the Dead in Natori

Gymnasiums, schools and even bowling alleys have become makeshift morgues for the bodies that have been recovered. Given the circumstances, the Health Ministry said last week that it would waive the rules requiring relatives to obtain local permission before carrying out burials or cremations. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

Barbara Demick and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, “A few blocks from Natori City Hall, a center to handle corpses has been set up on the grounds of a sports training hall. About 110 bodies have been recovered, including those of three children, said Bin Kimura, the operations head. Twenty have been positively identified and their names placed on the deceased board at the center.” [Source: Barbara Demick and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2011]

“In front of the building, on what was once a playing field, workers were busy erecting a blue tent, 100 feet by 30 feet, beside stacks of cardboard-wrapped coffins in case the massive gymnasium isn't large enough to handle the eventual number of bodies.”

“Friends and relatives who can't find their loved ones in person or on any of the lists come here. They're not allowed into the gymnasium to view the bodies. Instead, staffers in an outbuilding take down physical details of the missing along with any dental records. Then they go into the hall to try to match the information with the bodies.”

Caring for the Unrecovered in the Snow in Onagawacho

Hiroshi Sakamoto wrote in Yomiuri Shimbun: "Mom, Hiroko, you must be freezing. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry,” said Yoshikatsu Hiratsuka, tears streaming down his cheeks. Hiratsuka, 66, was staring at the bodies of his mother and wife in the earthquake-ravaged town of Onagawacho... Snow gently drifted down covering the bodies in a white mantle.” [Source: Hiroshi Sakamoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 18, 2011]

“When the massive quake hit the town in the afternoon last Friday, Hiratsuka was at the home of a neighborhood acquaintance. Rushing home, he found his 93-year-old mother, Minori, sitting on a chair on the road in front of their house. His sister, who lived nearby, had rescued Minori, who had trouble walking, and his wife, Hiroko, 61, was helping out. But while he was wondering how to evacuate the area, the tsunami hit.” [Ibid]

“In a moment, Hiratsuka found himself floundering about 10 meters away. Though he had a tight hold on Minori's arm, the two soon found water swirling around their chests and they were trapped in the rubble. “It hurts, it hurts,” Minori groaned, according to Hiratsuka. She died not long afterward. “Mom, I'm so sorry,” Hiratsuka said.”

“After managing to extricate himself from the rubble, Hiratsuka reluctantly left the site and headed for the municipal hospital. By that time, he had lost sight of his wife. When he returned the following day, he found Hiroko's body under rubble. He sawed through the wood pinning her down, pulled her out and laid her body on the ground. He then covered her with a blanket. Though he could see Minori's body under the rubble, he could not pull her out.”

“When he asked local government officials to recover the bodies, they turned him down, citing a manpower shortage. Hiratsuka walks 15 minutes every morning from the town's gymnasium, where he is being sheltered, to the site where his loved ones are to offer prayers. "You must be freezing. I'm so sorry I'm still unable to help you. Today marks the seventh day after your deaths," he said at the site. He has yet to find his 38-year-old son, Masaru, who lived with them.”

Cremation and Dealing with the Missing as Dead from the Tsunami

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North Japan Coastline After
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Shoichi Nakamura is having trouble sleeping and eating. Her brother, sister-in-law and their child have been missing for more than a week. She's been to three evacuation centers and pored over countless lists at disaster centers.That's left her with a dilemma she shares with a growing number of Japanese in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami: When do you give up hope that your relatives are alive? And how do you mark a death in tradition-bound Japan without a body to cremate?...”I think the tsunami took my brother,” said Nakamura, 58, who works at a cleaning service, "But another part of me doesn't want to give up searching. I'm sick wondering what to do." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2011]

“The lack of a body makes it difficult to have a proper osoushiki, or funeral ceremony, Nakamura said. Instead of using the remains of her brother and his family, she may have to use another family's bone chips or ashes as a stand-in. The Buddhist priests have declared that an acceptable alternative, she said. Other options include collective ceremonies known as godousou, or cremation of the clothes, photographs or personal items of the deceased in lieu of a body. Even a pinch of dirt from the spot the dead were last seen may have to do.” [Ibid]

"Many people will have to do this," Souichiro Tachibana, a teacher at an evacuation center in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture told the Los Angeles Times. "Even though it may not be your exact relation, what's important is to believe it is, for peace of mind. This is the last choice, but what can you do?" Japan did something similar during World War II when large numbers of Japanese troops died overseas. The government distribute sticks to the grieving families, saying they were from the war zone, Shinya Yamada, assistant professor at Tokyo's National Museum of Japanese History said . "But who knows if it's true." [Ibid]

Each family must decide when to give up hope. If the fishing industry is any guide, most people will decide within a week or two. "When bodies are taken by a tsunami or sea accident, they decompose and float onto the beach," a fishermen said. "If nothing shows up in a week or two, people accept the inevitable." [Ibid]

“Cremation is also considered a purification rite before the next life,” Magnier wrote. ‘some people interviewed by Japanese news media over the last week said they faced a life of despair if they didn't find their relatives' bodies. Others fear their loved ones' spirits will haunt them without a proper burial.” "Indeed, some people believe ghosts of the dead killed violently that are not cared for can cause problems," Ian Reader, professor of Japanese studies at Britain's University of Manchester, told the Los Angeles Times. "And places like Tohoku, with an aged population and a more 'traditional' orientation than, say, Tokyo, might hold to such views more strongly." [Ibid]

“But cremation requires 10 or more gallons of kerosene, which is in short supply, and some local governments have started burying the dead, an option some consider unclean. A further complication is that many of those grieving have no place to store an urn containing a loved one's ashes.” "We're trying to preserve their memories," said Wataru Takahashi, 36, whose cousins, a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law are missing. "But we need a house first." Some say kerosene should be used for the dead even if it leaves the living cold and hungry. "I'll do what it takes to get the fuel, and I don't care if they say I'm a bad guy," said Bunkai Abe, chief priest of the Jouan Temple in Miyako, which was relocated in 1618 up a steep road from the port after being flattened by a tsunami. [Ibid]

At the Ruisen Temple in neighboring Yamada, a town that has recovered 379 bodies, priest Keizan Ishigamori said some burial is probably inevitable. The community's crematorium can handle only nine bodies a day. Priests said troubled survivors have many questions. "They want to cry; they're angry," Ishigamori said. "But they're holding it inside. It's terrible. But it happened, and we must help each other to move on." As of early April more than 1,000 bodies in six prefectures had been buried rather than cremated because of shortages of kerosene or damage to crematoria.

Police Scale down Searches for Missing People

In November 2012, Iwate and Miyagi prefectural police have scaled down their search operations for the more than 2,500 people still missing from the March 11, 2011, tsunami. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The Iwate police stopped dispatching officers this month from inland stations to coastal areas for monthly intensive searches for missing people. This was mainly due to a dwindling number of search requests from families of the missing and municipalities hit by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake. However, police will continue their search around the 11th of each month but with fewer officers, said Keiki Chida, deputy chief of the prefectural police's security division.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 10, 2012]

The police stopped dispatching officers from inland stations once before, in January, but they resumed supporting the operations in June following an increasing number of requests from families and other people. More than 100 officers from these stations took part in the search each month. For example, of the 400 cumulative officers who participated in the search from Oct. 10 to 13, 176 came from inland stations, according to the prefectural police. [Ibid]

Meanwhile, the Miyagi prefectural police has maintained its special search squad of about 160 officers, but has scaled down its operations. Beginning in March, the squad shifted in principle from an intensive search around the 11th of each month to smaller-scale searches twice a week. It carried out three searches in September and October, respectively. It plans to conduct several searches this month in Higashi-Matsushima and other places. [Ibid]

Father Continues Search for Missing Son

Reporting from Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Tomonori Iwanami wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “As the sun set, Masaru Naganuma, 43, poked a stick into the brown earth to signal his search had ended for the day, here in the Nagatsura district located on the south bank at the mouth of the Kitakamigawa river. Naganuma took out his cell phone. On the screen was an image of his eldest son, Koto, smiling aboard a ship. "Your father will definitely find you, all right?" Naganuma made a fresh promise. [Source: Tomonori Iwanami, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 15, 2012]

Koto, who was a second-year student at Okawa Primary School at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, is one of four students from the school who remain unaccounted for. Seventy schoolchildren at the public school in Ishinomaki have been confirmed dead due to the disaster. [Ibid]

Naganuma's 42-year-old wife and 7-year-old second son survived the calamity, but their eldest son did not survive the tsunami. Naganuma can hear Koto's cheerful voice as he recalls the time they rode bicycles together on the road Koto used to go to school. He remembers Koto's mischievous face after jumping into the Nagatsura inlet. Koto constantly returns to Naganuma's mind while he continues digging in a completely changed landscape. [Ibid]

Naganuma, then a truck driver, was about 30 kilometers from the school when the disaster hit. It took him two days to reach the school. He found Koto's school bag and indoor shoes, but not Koto himself. From that day forward, he did virtually nothing but search for his son. He quit his job at a transport company and spent every day combing the coast and devastated areas nearby. [Ibid]

A year and nine months have passed since then. Naganuma recently took a job at a civil engineering company that undertakes search operations for the city government. In sediment and rubble, his search for Koto continues. Beside Naganuma in a heavy machine sat Naomi Hiratsuka, 38, the mother of a sixth-year student at the school who went missing after the disaster. The body of her daughter, Koharu, was found in August last year. No other missing children from the school have been found since then. After holding a funeral for her daughter, Hiratsuka returned to join Naganuma's search for his son. Although Naganuma told her she no longer needed to come, she continues to help him search for the boy without saying anything. [Ibid]

The city government expects current search operations in the drained area to be completed in March. Naganuma wonders what he will do if he doesn't find his son by then. He thinks about continuing the search on his own, but cannot afford it. He cannot think about anything beyond that. On the morning of the day before the disaster, Koto kept waving in front of the family home, Naganuma said. "Hurry up, or you'll be late for school!" he told his son. "I should have held him tightly at that time," he laments, then heads to Nagatsura once again. [Ibid]

Videos

Video of Tsunami Dead


Collecting Bodies


Report on Bodies Found After the Quake


Retrieving Dead in Rikuzentakata


Mourning the Dead

Image Sources: 1) German Aerospace Center; 2) NASA

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2014

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