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Friday, Sep. 14, 2012

Ishinomaki official keeps vigil over unidentified tsunami victims' ashes


ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Pref. — Chifumi Iizuka, an official in Ishinomaki, a city devastated by the huge tsunami 18 months ago, continues his task of keeping vigil over the ashes of 77 cremated victims, hoping their kin will someday claim them.

News photo
Still missing: The area around Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, is seen 13 days after it was devastated by the March 11, 2011, tsunami. The bodies of many schoolchildren killed in the disaster have not been found. The photo at right was taken on Sept. 3 this year. KYODO

"I will make sure the very last one is identified and returned," said Iizuka, 57, who has been in charge of the unidentified remains of victims following the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami that hit the Miyagi Prefecture city and other parts of the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

Before the disasters happened, he was engaged in a program to attract people to settle in the region in cooperation with neighboring municipalities.

When bodies began arriving en masse at morgues in April 2011, he was put in charge of managing a makeshift morgue set up on the site of a former fruit and vegetable market.

At its peak, the facility housed over 1,000 corpses. His task was to identify victims based on data and information provided by people visiting the morgue to search for their missing loved ones.

As the bodies decomposed, Iizuka's work became harder, but there was no one to replace him. "I envied the police officers who were temporarily assigned here but had a place to go back to," he recalled.

In December, the belongings and ashes of unidentified victims who had been cremated were transferred to a cemetery run by the city. Five officials are on hand to care for the clothes of the victims after they have been washed, and incense is lit every morning out of respect for the deceased.

Such efforts reflect a "wish to return the remains in the cleanest possible condition," Iizuka said.

When relatives of the victims hold the belongings, "they seem to feel that their missing loved ones have returned," Iizuka said, recalling one woman who burst into tears after discovering the remains of her grandfather through his sweater.

Seeing the tears in the eyes of family members upon receiving personal items, "I feel a little weight is lifted from my shoulders," he said.

However, even in Ishinomaki, where nearly 4,000 lives were lost in the disaster, there is less and less talk about those still unaccounted for.

While Iizuka accepts that memories fade in time, his experience has left him with an urge to remember.

"We must remember that there are still people missing, and this serves as a memorial for the dead," he said.

The city plans to establish a cinerarium in two years where the ashes of the unidentified will be kept.

"I don't think it should be built," said Iizuka. "I hope to continue watching over the remains until all are claimed by kin."

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