JAPAN: One missing person in a sea of debris


KAMAISHI Japan | Yasuko Kawahata, 61, welcomed the 20 young Tokyo police officers digging through the post-tsunami wreckage of her house to look for her 93-year-old mother.

In their crisp blue uniforms, the officers appeared much fresher that the local police, who have been working almost nonstop for three weeks and dealing with tragedies in their own families. Across northeastern Japan, a massive three-day search mission, involving 18,000 Japanese and 7,000 U.S. troops, plus firefighters and police officers from across Japan, could find only 77 corpses out of more than 15,000 people registered as missing.

That was heartbreaking news for bereaving survivors. “I can’t get on with my life until I find my mother,” said Miss Kawahata, rummaging through debris where her home once stood in the downtown port city of Kamaishi. “I have been living with her my whole life. There was only two of us left in our family. Now I am the only one.”

At her request, the Tokyo police with hard hats and sticks poked through wreckage of rotted straw mats, splintered wood and chunks of plaster. After three weeks of snow and freezing rain, the smell was more bearable than a few days ago, though everyone wore white masks. With the help of a crane, they lifted and moved smashed cars. They found photo albums and furniture, but no sign of kin.

“This is good practice for us,” said Yoshito Shinbori, the Tokyo-based unit’s commander, trying to stay positive amid the futility of unsuccessful searches. “Someday a big quake and tsunami will hit Tokyo, and this will help us prepare for that reality.” He said more than 200 Tokyo police officers, from a metropolitan force of 45,000, are working across Iwate province, which has only 2,000 exhausted officers looking for perhaps 20,000 people who disappeared in the March 11 tsunami, which followed Japan’s worst earthquake.

In Iwate province alone, police have registered 3,529 people as officially dead, meaning a body has been recovered and identified. The real number could be much higher.

For Miss Kawahata, the earthquake is a personal tragedy, regardless of whether the nationwide total will be 27,000 or 60,000.

When the quake hit, Miss Kawahata woke her mother, who managed to sleep through the long and violent shaking of their old wooden house. Her mother was too feeble to escape on foot, so Miss Kawahata helped her into the passenger seat of their car.

As the waters rose quickly up their street, Miss Kawahata realized she could not drive through the flood. She hurried to get out of the driver’s seat. Before she could get to her mother, the onrushing water pushed her into a stairwell of an adjacent apartment building, then up the stairwell and into an apartment. Grabbing an overhead beam, she held on as a torrent rushed through the building.

The next day, after the tsunamis withdrew back to the open ocean, she spotted her car under the debris but saw no sign of her mother.

For three weeks, while staying with friends in a safer part of Kamaishi, she waited for help until, finally, the Tokyo police arrived, in a crew of 20 led by Officer Shinbori.

They were tired from working long shifts and sleeping in the cold mountains, 250 miles away from the sakura flowers blooming down south in warm Tokyo. They even went into the gutted apartment building, seemingly on the verge of collapse. They thought that, if the tsunami pushed Miss Kawahata into the building, perhaps it swept her mother in as well.

But as the sun went down on a ransacked city without electricity, they had to call off the search. Bowing deeply, they apologized profusely to Miss Kawahata, and then boarded a bus for a long ride to a cold floor in a municipal hall of a distant northern town.

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