Hunt for missing disaster victims still confounds rescuers

Kyodo

Five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, police in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures are still searching for and identifying the bodies of those who went missing on March 11, 2011, though as time goes on they have fewer clues to work with.

The huge earthquake and ensuing tsunami caused massive damage across a broad swath of the Tohoku region. It left a total of 15,894 people dead, while 2,562 people remain unaccounted for as of Feb. 10, including 1,124 in Iwate, 1,237 in Miyagi and 197 in Fukushima, according to the National Police Agency.

Authorities in the three prefectures say they had recovered the bodies of 4,672 in Iwate, 9,539 in Miyagi and 1,613 in Fukushima by the end of January. The figures exclude the number of headless bodies, remains with only parts of the body recovered, as well as victims of aftershocks from the March 11 quake.

Of those recovered, police have matched names with all of the bodies recovered in Fukushima, 4,613 of those in Iwate and 9,523 in Miyagi.

But the challenge of identifying victims has grown over time. This year, police have managed to identify just 10 people. The low figure could be attributed to several factors, including relatives not reporting their kin as missing as well as a lack of DNA samples to match with bodies, since many victims’ homes were washed away in the tsunami.

In Fukushima Prefecture, a number of areas are still designated as no-go zones due to high radiation levels caused by the reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In these areas, police have found many businesses reluctant to aid in search activities, which often require the use of heavy machinery.

There are also many family members who argue the authorities have yet to exhaust all options in their search.

A man in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, whose eldest son is still listed as missing, submitted a request to the city office earlier this month calling for another investigation into places where searches were already conducted.

Despite these difficulties, police say they will continue working to identify remains.

In January, Fukushima police managed to ID the 1,613th victim, a carpenter in his 60s, based on records of artificial teeth. His body was recovered on March 14, 2011, but it took until January of this year to identify it as that of the carpenter, who had lived in the city of Iwaki.

After interviewing local dental technicians, police concluded that, due to their shape and color, it was highly likely that the carpenter’s artificial teeth matched the dental records.

Police also obtained an X-ray from a hospital the man visited, which provided conclusive evidence. It showed “a feature on the backbone typical of those who regularly carry heavy objects over long periods of time.”

Miyagi Prefectural Police set up a task force in November 2011 dedicated to researching and investigating unidentified and missing individuals. The officers from the task force have since taken various unorthodox approaches to their mission, including zooming in on pictures of remains and looking for moles or signs of surgery that might have been overlooked in an autopsy.

In the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a photo found near a male body was even helpful in identifying that man. Fingerprints found on the photo and that of the individual matched, and police went on to determine which photo-developing machine was used to print it, based on a code found on its back side. After going from that photo studio to another equipped with the same machine, police officers found the studio that actually developed the photo, which led to the identification of the 43-year-old man.

“Methods leading to identification are different in each case,” an officer with the task force said. “We are determined to make continuous efforts to find clues step by step.”

In addition to checking DNA samples and dental charts against the remains, Iwate Prefectural Police have released facial sketches of those who are still unidentified and held consultation events at temporary housing facilities.

Five years since the disaster, police in the coastal areas — who play a central role in search efforts — are renewing their pledge to recover the remains and return them to families in a bid to help bring closure to those still suffering.

Tomonori Hirobata, a 29-year-old senior officer at the Kahoku Police Station in coastal Ishinomaki, has taken part in the more than 1,000 searches since the disasters, when he was dispatched from the Naruko Police Station, in the inland city of Osaki.

Hirobata said he has had many exchanges with the locals at the police station and sometimes receives words of appreciation from them.

“There are still so many missing individuals who should be returned to their families, but my efforts are not enough,” Hirobata said apologetically.

Hirobata said he has seen many families of the missing and dead shed tears over the loss of their relatives, which has renewed his determination to help bring them closure.

“Who else would conduct the search but us?” he asked.