AOMORI – It takes more than a keen eye and an agile hand to give a semblance of life to the dead.
But for former police forensic artist Shuichi Abe, 65, it is a profession he aims to pass down through generations of police officers after his groundbreaking work in identifying victims from the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
“The eyes and mouths have changed in autopsy photos. You have to think about when they were still living,” said Abe, who is now retired from the Miyagi Prefectural Police.
Abe’s most daunting work began in January 2012.
Using his trusty pencil and the top forensics data available, he began the task of reconstructing the faces of victims from the Tohoku disasters to reunite them with their loved ones.
But being able to flesh out faces that have been charred beyond recognition or bloated from months at sea, with only the vaguest traces of humanity remaining, is a tall order.
“The best thing is when there is no work to be done at all,” said Abe, who is on a mission to teach his unconventional methodology to police officers around the country.
Abe recalls the autopsy chamber where the bodies of victims lay squeezed side by side in coffins when he was an assistant deputy chief of the forensics division at the time of the 3/11 disasters. Only the agonizing screams of family members clutching at their loved ones would break the silence.
Spending most of his time simply staring at the photos of the dead, Abe painstakingly restored many of the faces of the victims who could not be identified through DNA analysis because too much time had gone by.
He is able to return that certain sparkle to lifeless eyes even when faces have been all but obliterated.
“I want to return names to people who are called by numbers,” said Abe, who has completed 97 forensic art portraits.
Inquiries began streaming in from people who thought they might have recognized loved ones after the portraits were publicized in May 2012. Twenty-four bodies were positively identified.
He received a letter from a kindergarten student that said “Thank you for finding my granddad.”
In early June, Abe traveled to Aomori to teach police officers interested in the forensics art field. As material, he used 22 photos of victims from the Tohoku disasters. Some were frustrated they are unable to produce a likeness.
“I wouldn’t call (their portraits) good yet. Also, there’s not enough time (to teach them),” said Abe.
The work of a forensic artist is never done.