87,000 still in limbo five months after quake

Grief continues as number of missing recedes

Kyodo

Memorial services took place Thursday to mark the passing of five months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, with survivors mourning the loss of their loved ones while gradually beginning to find comfort from signs of reconstruction.

More than 15,600 people have been confirmed dead and police continue to search for over 4,700 others who are still missing. Some 87,000 evacuees remain scattered throughout the country.

“I am reminded strongly once again today that we must work hard toward reconstruction,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in the morning in response to a reporter’s question at his office in Tokyo.

The five-month commemoration of the disaster happened to fall around the nation’s Bon festival, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s deceased ancestors in mid-August.

In Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, where over 1,400 people died or are missing, Matsuko Hatakeyama, 59, said with tears in her eyes, “I have a relative whose body has yet to be found. I feel so blank and empty.”

At an elementary school in Ishinomaki, where 74 pupils were killed or remain missing, residents gathered to offer flowers and prayers.

A 72-year-old woman, whose fourth-grader granddaughter remains missing, said, “I hope she will be found soon. Right now, that is all that I hope for.”

In Higashimatsushima, also in Miyagi, which was reduced to ruins by the tsunami, residents gathered at a memorial service at a Buddhist temple, where they caught up with relatives and acquaintances they had not seen since moving into temporary housing.

“Things have finally settled down after I recently moved into an apartment, and I feel relieved seeing familiar faces for the first time in a long while,” said Kikue Edo, 57, who lost her 61-year-old husband and 87-year-old mother-in-law in the disaster. “Together with everyone, I want to pray for the two of them.”

Setsuko Taira, 76, who moved into temporary housing a month ago in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, said, however, while life has settled down, she is worried about what to do when the two-year limit for the residence expires.

As life has moved on for the survivors over the five months, emphasis has gradually shifted to reconstruction. The Self-Defense Forces have withdrawn from their relief efforts in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, and more and more evacuation shelters have closed down as evacuees move into temporary housing.

The government has reported that, as of July 28, there are 87,063 evacuees nationwide.

At the fish market in Miyako port, Iwate Prefecture, lively bidding for fresh hauls such as mackerel and swordfish have resumed while facilities destroyed by the tsunami have yet to be rebuilt.

“It’s been four months since (the auctions) have restarted. I want to work and stay positive so as to lift the spirits of Miyako,” said Kenji Sasaki, 51, of the Miyako fishery cooperative who is in charge of the auctions.