SENDAI, Japan (BP)– Masayuki Yamaki slowly picks his way through the slippery black mud toward his crew of yellow- and orange-clad firefighters. He deliberately tries to stay off the debris. It would be easier and faster to walk on the piles but he just can’t bring himself to do it.
That’s where the people are — the ones Yamaki and his crew search for each day in Japan. Those who did not escape the dark wall of crushing water that struck the coastal city of Sendai March 11. Those who are now known only as “the missing.”
Their faces and names line the walls of evacuation centers and are plastered on phone booths and anything else that’s left standing in the disaster zone. Local superstitions keep anyone from saying their names aloud. That’s just affirming the obvious — that the 14,589 still missing are, in fact, dead.
There’s not so much as a landmark left to identify this once-scenic Japanese coastal village in Myagi prefecture (district). Yet, after five weeks of searching through the rubble for survivors and then bodies, Yamaki knows it like the back of his hand.
Yamaki, who happens to be a Baptist layman, points out an area of orange rubble where a business once stood. They couldn’t escape the waves and are now part of the debris, he tells his longtime friend, International Mission Board missionary Tony Woods. The firefighter turns and points to the only building still standing on its proper foundation. A nursing home used to stand next to it.
“In the hour between the earthquake and the tsunami, we tried to get them … we rescued a few, but many died there,” Yamaki says. “Those first three days, we held out hope for survivors. That’s what drove us. By the fourth day, well, we knew….”
For Yamaki and the 22,000 others combing through the wreckage, finding the missing and identifying them is a high priority. Yamaki explains that the Japanese place a particular value on the physical remains — no matter the religious beliefs.
“That’s why by the fourth day, our focus was not for the sake of the victims but for the sake of the ones waiting and hoping to find someone they could grieve over,” Yamaki says. “We continue the search for those still living — so they can grieve the dead.
“When a person dies and we don’t recover the body, it’s a tragedy many in Japan may never recover from,” Yamaki adds. “They don’t have that physical presence to grieve over, to prepare [for cremation] or to say goodbye.”
Yamaki explains that while Christians like him believe the spirit and “real person” has gone on to be with the Father, Buddhists believe the body carries the spirit. This makes the recovery of bodies all the more important.
The firefighter stops walking and spreads his arms out, gesturing to Woods that in this area alone, an estimated 1,000 still are missing. Many tried escaping the oncoming wave by jumping into their cars. Yamaki tells his friend there are still hundreds of cars, most likely with bodies, under the rubble.
“If you see a big mound of debris, you know there will be bodies,” Yamaki says, pointing to a pile the size of a small cruise ship.
He tentatively jabs his walking stick through an opening in the debris. The firefighter explains the stick helps him know if there is a body buried.
“When you touch something organic, there is a different feel — soft and cushiony,” Yamaki explains. “I always pray it will be a futon mattress.”
His eyes grow teary. He regains his composure quickly, and Woods puts a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder and asks if he’s OK.
Yamaki nods and explains that this search is personal for most of his crew. They grew up in this area. They are finding the bodies of people they know — fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends.
After five weeks, the search just gets harder. Decomposition makes it difficult to identify remains. Dental or medical records that might help were washed away in the tsunami.
Finding a decaying corpse is a difficult experience, even for seasoned rescue workers, Yamaki says. “It’s really, really awful. We are professionals and trained to do this, but we are humans first.
“We hear words of support from all over the world,” Yamaki continues. “What I want to hear the most is for people to say that they are praying for us. I know that prayer can be the most effective and powerful tool of all.
“I just want to hear that people are praying for us,” Yamaki repeats adamantly. “We are down. We are sad and grieving.”
Nighttime is hardest for Yamaki and his crew — that’s when they are alone and their feelings finally come to the surface, when the enormous task they’ve been asked to do seems impossible.
No one verbalizes it, but they know not everyone will be found. Yamaki isn’t even sure the estimated numbers are correct. If entire families were washed out to sea, who’s left to report them missing?
The firefighter shakes his head and admits there’s no way to really grasp the magnitude of the disaster and its lasting effects on his country. All he knows is that despite his best efforts, no one but God will ever know the true number or say all the names of “the missing.”
Susie Rain is an IMB writer/editor living in Southeast Asia. The IMB has established a relief fund for the Japan disaster. Donations may be sent to Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond, VA 23230. In the memo line write “Japan Response Fund.” Or you can give online by going to imb.org and clicking on the “Japan response” button. For further information, call the IMB toll-free at 1-800-999-3113.