Many From Stricken Japanese Town Still Missing

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The tsunami that swept away coastal towns along northern Japan's coast killed at least 11,000 people. Another 16,000 people are still missing. NPR's Stu Seidel visited Rikuzentakata, one of those towns, earlier this week. He talks with host Scott Simon about the visit.


There's now an established routine along the coastline of northern Japan: police, firefighters, members of Japan's self-defense forces and local citizens spend their days probing the rubble of devastated communities to look for the dead.

More than 11,000 people are known to have died in the tsunami that followed a record 9.0 earthquake there three weeks ago. Another 16,000 people are still missing. Many are believed to have been swept out to sea as the waters receded. Many others are buried in the debris of thousands of homes and businesses destroyed by the rising and rushing waters that day.

NPR's Stu Seidel has been in Japan since just a few days following the earthquake and tsunami. He spent most of his time in Tokyo, but earlier this week, Stu visited the northern coast of Japan. And, Stu, please tell us where you went and what you saw.

STU SEIDEL: I went to the seaside town of Rikuzentakata - or I went to the ruins of Rikuzentakata. It was a place where about 23,000 people lived. The town sat in a flat area about a mile deep, backed by green hills, facing a harbor that opens onto the Pacific Ocean.

Looking out over the harbor, Scott, the water was totally calm, placid. You turn around and there's a wasteland. The only things standing were a few buildings made of concrete or the skeletons of steel frame buildings.

Two six-story concrete apartment buildings were still standing - the first five floors were washed through and through - empty - the top floor was, all the windows were still there. The waters hadn't reached that high.

Everywhere, there was debris - most of the buildings in northern Japan are made of wood - and the debris was like a field of broken-up two-by-fours.

SIMON: Any people?

SEIDEL: Very few. We saw groups of recovery workers that carried long poles as they walked through the debris, gently probing the poles into the litter. They were walking around looking for bodies. In the distance - I was there with one of our translators, Naomi Kodama. We saw a group of maybe a dozen workers standing around a stretcher with a body on it shrouded. In the further distance, there was another group of workers standing around another stretcher.

I have no idea - I don't think anybody has any firm idea - of how many people died in Rikuzentakata. It's certainly in the confirmed hundreds. There are estimates that as many as 40 percent of the residents of the town are still missing.

SIMON: And, Stu, any who survived, where are they now?

SEIDEL: Many are in shelters nearby. Some are living with friends; some are living with family. We went to one of the shelters, a junior high school. We walked around the junior high school for a while and then we went to another nearby building, a warehouse that's been turned into a sort of information center.

And upstairs on the second floor, there's a room where four people are sitting with laptop computers. On the all opposite them, there are two long lists on the right-hand side, the much longer list showing the names of people who are missing. There are maybe three or four looking at those lists, scanning them, looking for names.

The other list was of the people are confirmed to have died. And there was woman standing there looking at that list. And she was just standing, staring at a single page.

SIMON: NPR's Stu Seidel in Tokyo, thanks so much.

SEIDEL: Certainly, Scott.

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