Three bodies found in Iwate Prefecture in 2011 have been identified as local residents who went missing in the major earthquake and tsunami on March 11 of that year, the prefectural police said.

Relatives who received the bodies back from the police 12 years after the disaster expressed relief and happiness.

The bodies were identified as Yoshiko Yamada, then 83, from the city of Rikuzentakata, Kine Sano, then 84, a resident of the town of Otsuchi, and Takeshi Kinoshita, then 74, from the town of Yamada, the Iwate police said Wednesday.

Parts of their bodies were discovered in the sea or on land between March 2011 and August the same year. Their identities were confirmed in June this year through mitochondrial DNA testing. The bodies were handed over to relatives on Tuesday.

"I thought (my aunt's) body would never be discovered. It was good for her body not to be swept away (in the sea)," said Yamada's nephew, Makoto, 68.

Yamada's 74-year-old niece, Taeko, said she told her aunt's body, "Welcome back. You finally made it home."

"I am full of gratitude to the police," Kinoshita's sister, Eiko, from Morioka, the capital of Iwate, said. "I think people who have yet to find family members (missing in the disaster) can have hope," she added.

In Iwate, 4,674 people have been confirmed dead in the March 11 disaster, and 1,110 others are listed as missing. Meanwhile, 140 bodies have been partially recovered, with 91 of them identified.

Iwate and two other prefectures in the Tohoku region — Miyagi and Fukushima — were hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami.