SENDAI – Ruiko Sasahara can never forget the sight of a little girl lying in a morgue after the tsunami five years ago.
The 43-year-old mother of two is a nokanshi (undertaker) from Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture. She prepares corpses for cremation.
Sasahara was confident she could restore the girl’s face to how she might have looked in life. However, she was not permitted to do so as the body had not been identified by relatives.
Motivated by grief and regret, Sasahara now continues to support survivors of the quake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.
Sapporo native Sasahara founded an institute in April 2013 in Otsuchi, a town in Iwate Prefecture where some 1,200 residents — or 10 percent of the population — were listed as dead or missing. The institute supports children who lost their parents.
When she visits, Sasahara plays with them and listens to what they have to say. “You are not alone,” she always tells them.
Sasahara decided to take up the occupation of nokanshi after witnessing a number of deaths while working at a hospital in her 20s.
Some of the deceased looked skeletal with hollowed out cheeks after years of struggling with disease, while others died with their eyes and mouths open.
Explaining why she left the hospital and became a nokanshi, she said, “If I can restore their faces to the state they were in when they were healthy, it may offer some comfort to the bereaved families.”
After the tsunami, Sasahara served as an undertaker volunteer. She handled more than 300 bodies, ranging from a 10-day-old baby to victims in their 90s.
“What I hope for is that families feel no regrets at their last moment with the deceased,” she said. “I believe this will help them accept the death of their loved one and move forward in their life.”
Sasahara prepares a corpse based on an original technique she perfected by studying medical texts.
She massages the facial muscles to relax the features and then applies repeated layers of a special foundation.
Sasahara currently runs a nokanshi company in Kitakami and spends up to 80 days a year traveling all over the country delivering lectures about her work.
Her family and friends joke that her life is too hectic. Sasahara responds: “I’m just following my intuition, doing what I feel I should be doing.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.