With floodwaters finally gone, a Japan town searches for tsunami victims
They covered the body with a child’s blanket, a fluffy blue-green cloak decorated with white lilies. Beneath the cloth was a man, maybe in his 40s, missing his right arm from the elbow, a final insult to one of the countless victims of this agricultural town’s tsunami nightmare.
On a warm late-winter morning, four recovery workers bent low, slowly lifting the corpse in silent deference, before splashing through the muck and ooze of the rural rice field toward the road.
On Sunday, the ritual was repeated again and again, at least a dozen times, as teams — many in hazmat gowns — finally had an opportunity to reach the bodies of friends and neighbors that had languished in a sea of mud and wreckage since the earthquake and tsunami struck March 11.
On this day the floodwaters at last receded, giving Nakanosawa a chance to collect its own.
“Before today, this field was an ocean,” said volunteer officer Hideaki Suzuki, gesturing with a hand sheathed in a blue surgical glove.
Nakanosawa, 220 miles north of Tokyo in isolated Iwate prefecture, is one of many coastal towns in northeastern Japan that have been decimated by nature’s mayhem. A few have been swept out to sea — people, houses, cars and all.
Others, like this farm community of 23,000, are reeling from a one-two earthquake-tsunami punch from which many here wonder whether they will ever recover. The ranks of the missing in Nakanosawa number 1,800. Authorities have recovered 700 bodies, but have been hobbled by a lack of resources, including gas and electricity, as well as by floodwaters that had stubbornly refused to recede.
The weather and water finally relented. Days ago, the field, nearly three miles inland, was covered with a film of snow, but on Sunday the sun shone through, bringing a hint of spring that belied a grisly task.
“These aren’t faceless victims; I know most of these people,” Suzuki said as he directed a line of traffic that included passing drivers who covered their mouths in shock and teenage gawkers taking pictures on their cellphone cameras. “Just a few moments ago, they carried out a volunteer fireman. It’s hard to watch. But it’s worse when you know them.”
The day’s salvage effort focused on the rice field along Route 45, a onetime thoroughfare for families on their way to a nearby beach, now transformed into a grim avenue of death.
The field, several miles long, at places a mile wide, sits littered with detritus: parts of upside-down houses, trucks and cars carried here from who knows where. Here and there lay snapped-off tree trunks, shards of wood, blankets, car tires, dolls, an ice chest, a wooden ornamental sake bucket, a refrigerator door and a book called “Setting Free the Bears.”
The adjacent country road, mostly cleared of wreckage, weaved between mountains of debris at some places 40 feet high, from which the tail ends of cars protruded like Christmas tree ornaments. There was a yellow crane, toppled on its side, that was too big to move, so motorists just swerved around it.
At first light Sunday, the search teams fanned out into the field, picking their way along paths marked by muddy footprints, crossing small inlets of standing water over bridges made from wooden doors and window sills.
Workers said little as they went about their task. A parade of men in white suits walked in formation, sweating in the sun. At one point, the first in line sighed and dropped a heavy portable generator as the others passed in silence.
Amid a sickening smell of decay, the crews found so many bodies that they ran out of space to store them. At one point they stopped carrying their finds to the roadside, instead marking them before moving on to the next. Submerged for days, many of the corpses had simply fallen apart, forcing workers to collect what limbs they could find.
Suzuki watched from the roadside, shaking his head in disbelief. The 27-year-old truck driver and his wife and 1-year-old son were safe, but he couldn’t just sit in front of the TV gawking at the nonstop images of disaster. He volunteered.
“Who knows where these bodies came from?” said Suzuki, in hip boots, a blue kimono, white belt and helmet. “There was nothing to stop the water. Now this place is a disaster zone.”
Nearby, a dozen workers congregated on the road as their counterparts carried out two bodies at once, both covered by the same blue tarp, the men supporting their load solemnly, as though part of a funeral procession.
“I don’t think they’ll ever replant this field,” Suzuki said. “They’ll let it sit fallow. They’ll be afraid to find more bodies.”
In this part of Japan, it seems as though nearly everyone has lost a loved one. At a nearby communications center, Futoshi Toba, mayor of Rikuzentakata, looked wan with shock as he consulted with workers.
After 18 years in office, Toba finds the town he has come to love has been crippled and himself with it. His wife, Kumi, is missing in the floodwaters. The last time he saw her was the morning of the quake when he left home for work. When he returned, there was nothing left of his home but its foundation.
Now his wife’s parents have taken up the search for her remains. Toba, 46, acknowledges that he’s too busy keeping his community from coming apart at the seams.
“Many people here have lost family. I’m not the only one,” he said, his eyes glassy. “We all have to keep working. We have to be strong. Right now, there is no space in my brain to consider the future. There is no room to grieve, not yet.”
The same could not be said for other residents. At a nearby middle school, one of four collection spots for Nakanosawa’s recovered bodies, old women wiped their eyes as they arrived to search the list of victims for their relatives — a husband, son-in-law or an infant granddaughter.
Mayumi Yoshiaki came with a friend to find the remains of her 56-year-old husband, Sato. The construction worker was seen by friends being carried off by the floodwaters.
“This is the first day that I could come out and look for him,” she said. “We have no gas to drive the car. I’m not sure if he is here, but I will keep looking.”
She joined a small crowd that studied the names of recovered bodies posted to the school’s cafeteria window. Her body slumped as she scoured the names. Her Sato was not there, so another would-be widow walked away in silence.
Those who identified relatives or friends showed up with wooden caskets to carry them home. All day long, the cars and trucks pulled up to the school, moving slowly across the dirt soccer field.
Just as one body was claimed, a new one would arrive, delivered by salvage workers. Inside the gymnasium, a row of covered bodies rested beneath a Japanese flag on a wall, with flowers placed beside each.
In the late afternoon, a refrigerated truck backed up to the delivery port and several men carried out the latest of Nakanosawa’s deceased. Moments later, a worker emerged to dispose of the shroud that had been used to cover the body, throwing it atop a growing pile of scores of colorful blankets.
Then he disappeared back inside.