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As Japan mourns dead, many bodies remain missing

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    Japan Ground Self-Defense Force personnel march by coffins during a burial ceremony for the March 11 tsunami victims in Higashimatsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

NATORI, Japan >> Those in search of the dead go to Natori’s bowling alley, walking up the cracked concrete steps and through the glass door. "Enjoy Coca-Cola," says a neon sign out front.

They go under the two-story painting of the bowling ball crashing into giant pins. They walk past the lists of the dead and the descriptions of the bodies yet to be identified. Inside, they step slowly through the makeshift morgue, peering into satin-wrapped coffins arranged in neat rows where bowlers so recently faced off.

They rarely find the people they seek.

If a bowling alley is no place to comes to terms with death, there is another pain for many along northeast Japan’s tsunami-battered coast, a pain less specific but perhaps just as agonizing: the pain of finding no body at all.

"There should be more bodies," said Marius Du Toit, a South African search and rescue team leader. His crew was walking through the shattered remnants of hundreds of houses in the devastated port city of Natori, turning over rubble in search of corpses.

Eleven days after the tsunami slammed into the coast, obliterating entire villages, more than 9,000 bodies have been found — but some 13,800 people are still missing. The police estimate more than 15,000 deaths are likely just in Miyagi, the province that includes Natori.

Some of the missing will turn up elsewhere. They’ll be in hospitals, or staying with relatives, or will have been on vacation. More corpses will be found too as rescue operations shift to the grim work of cleanup, digging through tons of rubble and muck.

Increasingly, though, officials and rescue teams believe many people will never be found.

A few days ago, rescuers were finding up to 50 bodies daily around here. Local officials were running out of body bags. Now, it’s down to a couple of bodies a day. "We don’t know where they are," Du Toit said.

Isoo Sasaki, the mayor of Natori, is from Yoriage, the neighborhood where Du Toit was searching. It was the old part of town, dating back centuries, from before the seaside fishing village became a modern city of 73,000.

"It is so terrible to find the body of a loved one," Sasaki said in his office, where he has been sleeping on the floor since one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history spawned the tsunami. "But perhaps those families are also lucky. Many people will not find a body at all."

As of Monday, 315 bodies had been identified in Natori, and well over 1,000 people were missing.

Much of Yoriage has been scrubbed from the Earth, with concrete foundations often all that remains.

Where the rubble has piled up, it is an incomprehensible jumble of splintered homes, fishing boats and smashed and shattered cars. One house is upside down. A bus is wrapped around the second floor of another. Concrete poles reinforced with steel are twisted like licorice strings.

Amid the devastation, it’s the occasional signs of normalcy that look obscene: the little boy’s underpants hung out to dry on a second-floor balcony, the wind chime that rings in the breeze.

If history is any guide, thousands of bodies will never be found. Of the 164,000 people who died in Indonesia in the December 2004 tsunami, 37,000 simply disappeared, their bodies presumably washed out to sea.

Iskandar, a disaster management official in Aceh province, spent more than a year struggling to compile an accurate tally of his country’s dead and missing. Like many Indonesians, he goes by only one name. He insisted that many Japanese victims could still be found: "It’s still too early to lose hope."

So it is for many survivors, who cannot yet bear to think that their friends or relatives might be dead.

Eriko Sato, a 23-year-old acupuncturist, was searching for a friend over the weekend in the village of Kesennuma, repeating her hope over and over again.

"She’s alive, she’s alive, she’s alive," Sato said. "If I stop saying it or thinking it, maybe the worst will happen."

Eventually, though, the survivors of Natori find their way to Airport Bowling, first to read through the descriptions of the bodies: "anchor tattoo on upper left arm" or "short black haircut in a burgundy sweater."

Then they go inside, wondering if they will find what they fear most to see. Or if they’ll never find it at all.


Associated Press writers Foster Klug in Kesennuma and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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