JAPAN: Numbers of dead, missing and alive don’t add up


Otsuchi, Japan—

They are the mysterious people, neither counted among the dead nor the living.

In Otsuchi town, officials say they don’t know the whereabouts of 7000 people, roughly half the town’s former population.

Local officials in Otsuchi, however, say they would like to know exactly who is alive or dead. They need this information to prepare a voter’s registration list in order to conduct an election, perhaps in August, to replace the town’s mayor and 31 officials. They were killed in the town hall, a two-storey building swamped by 50-foot high waves on March 11.

In Otsuchi, the numbers don’t add up. According to the last national census in October 2010, Otsuchi, a naturally beautiful fishing town in a narrow valley between high mountains, had 15,277 residents. Now, local officials in Otsuchi can only verify that 6,466 people are living: 1969 people in 34 shelters, and 4497 staying in homes on higher ground around the edges of the obliteration zone, which extends about 3 miles from the sea down the river valley.

Does that mean almost 9000 people, more than half the town, died on March 11?

Officials say they aren’t sure.  As of May 28, they had counted 771 dead bodies, enough to fill 14 pages of a list at the entrance of evacuation centers. Survivors had also filled out forms to officially report 952 people as missing.

But what about the other 7000 people, neither listed as dead, missing or living? Did they all die? Is the real death toll 8811, about five times the official number of dead and missing? Or did most of the unaccounted 7000 go to stay with relatives and not yet contact authorities?

“We don’t know anything about where these people are,” says Manabu Kikuchi, a local administrator from nearby Kamaishi city who has come to Otsuchi to temporarily work in the place of 32 officials who died at their posts on March 11. “Maybe they went away from here, to stay with families in Morioka or perhaps Tokyo. Or maybe they are missing and dead. We want to know where they are. We still have to keep searching for them.”

Many survivors across the disaster zone say they suspect the nationwide death toll from the March 11 tsunami is much higher than the official figure of 15,421 dead and 7937 missing.

Exhausted government officials, who lost family members and co-workers in many cases, say their initial priority until now has been to take care of the living, rather than investigating the true number of dead. Only a new nationwide census can determine the final death toll, they say.

Like others, Mr. Kikuchi says that in some cases, whole families were swept away, leaving nobody to report them as missing. Japan also has a high proportion of people, especially seniors, who live alone without many friends or relatives. 

He says the national police agency, which alone has the authority to tabulate the official nationwide death toll, can only report what they know for sure, rather than making rough estimates. They are very precise, he says. The death list in Otsuchi shows numbers for recovered bodies identified and not identified, due to disfiguration.

Speaking privately, police officers and soldiers in disaster zones say the numbers are indeed incomplete. Though the tsunami was highest and most devastasting in Iwate province, completely obliterating most of Rikuzen-Takata, Otsuchi, Yamata and other towns, Iwate’s official toll of 4533 dead and 2786 missing is roughly half that of Miyagi province’s toll of 9228 dead and 4781 missing, according to the National Police Agency’s website. The site lists only 167 injured in Iwate, compared with 3,461 in Miyagi – an indication that reports from Iwate remain a work in progress.

Due to its tragic loss of officials, Otsuchi’s recovery remains far behind other towns. Even three months after the tsunami, soldiers are still walking through rubble in Otsuchi, poking with sticks in search of bodies or clues about missing persons.

At a gym atop a bluff overlooking the obliteration zone, survivors have posted the names, birthdates and photos of missing relatives and friends in black and red ink filling dozens of sheets of paper on walls. Others use donated computers to search for any information on missing people.

“Perhaps a normal City Hall could count the numbers of dead and living,” says Susumu Fujiwara, 35, a soccer coach and high school teacher of economics, politics and world history. “In our case in Otsuchi, there’s no data. All the records were washed away, so we can’t count.”

The New York Times reported in May that Otsuchi’s chamber of commerce could only contact 114 out of about 400 members. Japanese journalists, and aid workers, arriving in Otsuchi immediately after the tsunami, initially estimated that perhaps 10,000 were dead or missing in Otsuchi, and also in other devastated towns such as Rikuzen-Takata and Minami-Sanriku. They based their estimates on the relatively small numbers of survivors in evacuation shelters, and the obliteration of nearly every residential or commercial building in densely-populated areas. 

Takaaki Goto, 74, a city councilor and respected former geography teacher and soccer coach, estimates the real number of missing is 2500 to 3000, about three times the official toll of 952 missing.

“There are many people who had no families, so nobody was left to report them as missing,” he says, sitting at a desk near his space on the floor of a local gym. “There are also families who were all swept away together, and there’s nobody left to report them as well.”

He says it’s possible that, as Mr. Kikuchi suggests, some people left to stay with relatives, and didn’t tell the authorities where they are. But he says it’s also highly likely that many people ignored warnings or couldn’t escape in time. “I think the government should tell us more quickly the real story of what happened here.”

Many survivors in evacuation shelters agree, saying that officials, police and soldiers – who come to ask who wants temporary housing – have not yet come around to ask them for information to figure out the true death toll.

Mr. Kikuchi says he wants all former residents – to contact officials at makeshift town hall offices next to a burned out school. “Maybe some people who went away think we don’t have a phone number or an office, so they haven’t tried to contact us to tell us where they are. Everything is still confused right now. We want people to contact us, wherever they are.”

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