They were almost identical — the photo of Kiu Abe, 99, before she died and the portrait a retired forensic officer with the Miyagi Prefectural Police drew based on the remains found in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, two months after the March 2011 earthquake-triggered tsunami hit the region.
The portrait captured her soft character from the plum cheeks to the depth of her wrinkles, much like a smiling snapshot. It was the work of Shuichi Abe, 70 — a forensic expert still working for the Miyagi police to pass on his experience — from eight years ago that resulted in identifying the remains that had been unaccounted for until the end of June this year.
“I was almost giving up, thinking that she had been swept away into the Pacific. After nine years, he found my aunt, and I have nothing but gratitude for him,” said Kazuyuki Kanno, 80, a nephew of Kiu Abe.
What became decisive in determining her identity was an analysis of DNA which is only handed down through one’s matrilineal ancestry. Based on the place where the bodies were found, investigators narrowed down the location where she would have lived, and then cross-checked with the portrait.
Shuichi Abe has long been a forensic police officer, excelling at drawing portraits. He illustrates a person’s face from its skull based on forensic data. He studied the technique on his own, reading various academic books and predicting, for instance, the thickness of the cheek through body fat.
“The key is to get as much information from the photo of the corpse on what the deceased looked like when he or she was alive,” he said.
He first drew a portrait of a skull in a criminal case in 1978 when he was a forensic officer. Since then Abe has drawn nearly 1,000 portraits to help investigators solve their cases.
After he retired in 2012, he had drawn 94 portraits of unidentified bodies when the 2011 disaster occurred, which led to the identification of 24 people. People called his works genius. He was even featured in Time magazine. As the only such specialist at the prefectural police, he is also educating the younger generation at facilities including the police academy.
Soliciting information from the public utilizing portraits was an innovative idea. As time passed, though, the bodies discovered had sustained more damage. The police faced difficulties identifying them as they couldn’t locate relatives essential for DNA analysis, and local dentists, necessary for matching past dental treatments for identification, were also hit hard by the disaster. In those difficult times, police turned to Abe for his expertise.
Bodies that are unaccounted for are given a combination of numbers and kanji characters for categorization, which was the case with Kiu Abe. Shuichi Abe was pained when he heard these cold titles.
“I wanted to get her back to the family as soon as possible, and give her back her name and address. I wanted to restore her face to the original state before she passed away,” he said.
Spurred by this sense of mission, Abe kept drawing.
There was only one photo of Kiu’s remains, taken during autopsy. Observing the photo and carefully reading the record, he imagines the look of her when she was still alive. Damaged in the debris, her body was swollen, and her mouth and nose were distorted.
“Just adding one line can change the impression, ” Abe said. Repeating the process of drawing and erasing, he carefully adjusted the contour of the face with thin pencil lines, returning the mouth and nose back to their original place in his mind. He imagines her life before she died.
When the remains he draws don’t have teeth, he usually draws a vertical wrinkle between the upper lip and nose, but for Kiu Abe’s case he suspected that she used to have dentures.
“Is it okay, really okay?” he kept asking himself for two days, before he finally finished the portrait.
“I can really see the resemblance in the area below the nose. Aunt Kiu must be happy having been drawn so nicely,” said Kikuko Kanno, 79, the wife of Kazuyuki Kanno, nodding, while looking at her smile in her photo.
A month after the 2011 disaster, the number of bodies unaccounted for in Miyagi Prefecture was 1,253. Nearly 10 years later, the figure has now shrunk to seven.
In early July, Abe saw a news report of Kiu Abe’s remains being handed over to Kanno.
The numbers assigned to the body have now become names. Reminiscing on the days when he drew with frustration over the lack of information, he felt another weight lifted from his heart.
This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original articles were published Sept. 18 and 19.
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