More than two months after a devastating earthquake and tsunami ravaged the Tohoku region, about 9,500 people remain unaccounted for.
Police and Self-Defense Forces personnel continue to search the wrecked areas, but as time passes fewer bodies are being found. Identifying bodies is also proving difficult, as the extreme force of the tsunami stripped victims of clothes, IDs and jewelry.
At a temporary burial site on a hill in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, the graves of unidentified victims are marked only with numerals written in kanji.
Of some 330 victims buried there, about 30 have yet to be identified. The small bunches of flowers placed on their graves by municipal officials have started to wither, in sad contrast to the vivid flowers and offerings of food and drinks placed next to grave markers of deceased who have been identified.
The deceased are usually cremated in Japan, but the fuel shortages that followed the disaster forced Miyagi to allow burials without cremation.
The death toll from the March 11 quake and tsunami now totals about 15,000.
In Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, a former bowling alley and then a convenience store on the same premises have been used as makeshift morgues. Until early April, more than 100 coffins could be seen placed side by side at the temporary morgue, but that has dwindled to only a handful.
Instead, there are now coffins made from paulownia wood, containing the bones of unidentified victims who have already been cremated.
In front of each coffin a clear plastic bag contains what few clues remain to the deceased’s identity, such as a shoe or a bra. Dentures are stored in other bags, a clear sign that a disproportionate amount of elderly people were killed by the tsunami.
Although physical features of the victims are pasted on the box, there are very few clues to help identify the deceased.
In the middle of the morgue, a small coffin contains the body of a baby girl thought to have been about 1 year old. Based on the infant’s clothes, a woman is convinced that it is her daughter but is waiting for DNA tests to be conducted. The woman places juice and snacks in front of the coffin every day.
A 60-year-old man in Higashimatsushima has visited the city’s morgue every day to search for the bodies of his 64-year-old sister, 66-year-old brother-in-law and a 22-year-old nephew.
Although he believes he has found his brother-in-law and nephew based on their clothing described on a list at the morgue, the bodies had already been cremated.
The man can’t claim the remains until a blood relationship is proved through DNA testing. He and seven other members of the family, including his brothers, sisters and aging mother, came to the morgue to have their mouths swabbed for DNA tests.
“We were told that it takes at least two weeks. Everybody is in the same situation. There is nothing we can do,” one of the family members said.