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Japanese monk guards remains of tsunami unknown
by Staff Writers
Yamamoto, Japan (AFP) March 3, 2012

Hundreds of the 19,000 people killed by Japan's horrific quake-tsunami remain unmourned, their bodies never claimed because there is no one left to notice they have gone.

But one Buddhist monk has lovingly stored the ashes and bones of some of those whose names no one knows in the hope that one day they can be reunited with their families.

Every day for the last year, Ryushin Miyabe has offered prayers and lit incense for the souls in his care at the Myokoin temple in Yamamoto, a small town on Japan's tsunami-wrecked coast.

In late January he was finally able to hand over the remains of a five-year-old boy, known until then only as "No. 906", when the child's grandmother was identified through DNA tests.

The young corpse had been cremated in June after coastguards found it floating in the Pacific without any belongings, washed out to sea by the tsunami of March 11 that tore into the coast.

The grandmother told Miyabe that the boy's mother had also been killed in the catastrophe and she had been searching for her grandson's body for nearly a year.

With the boy's remains back with a family member, his spirit can pass into the next world, says Miyabe.

"I guess the boy has met his mother in heaven by now," he said. "She must have told him: 'Hey, you are late!'"

Buddhist tradition dictates that a body is cremated and the ashes are placed in an urn, along with the bones that remain.

The urn is put in a family grave, which Japanese traditionally believe to be the gateway to the next world, one through which souls can return every year during the summer festival of Obon.

The grave must be cared for by surviving family, who in return, expect spiritual protection from their deceased relatives.

Nationwide, 500 bodies recovered after the huge waves swept ashore have still not been identified, and more than 3,000 of those who died have never been found.

At one point Miyabe was looking after the ashes of 30 people, their remains entrusted to him by authorities overwhelmed by the number of people who perished.

After the five-year-old was reunited with his family, Miyabe's temple has only one small jar left.

"I will continue holding vigil, praying for the earliest return of the ashes to the victim's family who must be desperately trying to find the body," Miyabe said.

The majority of those who died in the tsunami were identified before being cremated and their families wanted full funeral rites.

Mortician Ruiko Sasahara prepared more than 300 often badly damaged bodies at makeshift morgues in tsunami-hit coastal towns, to allow relatives to bid their farewells.

As well as making funeral arrangements, morticians in Japan clean, dress and apply cosmetics to bodies in an effort to make them look as much like they did when they were alive as possible.

"My job is to help prepare the dead for their departure to heaven," Sasahara said at her office in Kitakami, 60 kilometres (35 miles) from the tsunami coast.

The practice, which is fading in bigger cities but remains fairly common in rural areas, came to worldwide attention in 2009 when "Departures" won an Oscar for its depiction of an out of work cellist who becomes a mortician in small town Japan.

Many of the bodies that Sasahara was called upon to patch up were in bad condition.

"I'd never seen bodies in such a state -- many of them smelled of decay, there was a lot of maggot damage and some of them were partial skeletons," she said.

But she knew that families desperately needed to be able to say their goodbyes and even resorted to using clippings from her own hair to remake eyelashes and eyebrows.

Sasahara said the process of repair is vital to protect the dignity of the dead and to ease the pain of those left behind.

"Many of the bereaved blame themselves for failing to save their loved ones," she said.

"When they once again see the smile of the person they lost, I think many people can feel they have been forgiven."

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Japan PM: No individual to blame for Fukushima
Tokyo (AFP) March 3, 2012 - No individual can be held responsible for the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, Japan's prime minister said Saturday, insisting everyone had to "share the pain".

Yoshihiko Noda told foreign journalists in Tokyo that the Japanese establishment had been taken in by the "myth of safety" around nuclear power and was unprepared for a disaster on the scale of last March's accident.

A week ahead of the anniversary of the disaster, the premier swatted away a question over criminal responsibility for meltdowns that forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and polluted the land and sea.

"Of course, the primary responsibility under Japanese law rests with the operator" of the stricken plant, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), Noda said.

"But the government as well as operators and academia were steeped too deeply in the safety myth and I think that is what we can conclude.

"Rather than blaming any individual person I believe everyone has to share the pain of responsibility and learn this lesson."

Noda's comments come just days after an independent investigation panel revealed the president of TEPCO had wanted to abandon the plant in the days after the tsunami swamped its reactor cooling systems.

A report compiled by private thinktank Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation said it was only threats by then prime minister Naoto Kan that had prevented TEPCO from leaving the plant to its fate as the accident spiralled out of control.

Noda told reporters lessons had been and were still being learned from Fukushima, including "don't install power sources outside which are likely to be hit by a tsunami".

All but two of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are presently offline, with local communities unwilling to allow them to restart amid a public backlash over the safety of a once-trusted technology.

Noda said electricity-hungry Japan would diversify its power sources, but stopped short of pledging to abandon atomic energy.

"We have to grow out of our dependence on nuclear and we have to establish in the medium to longer term a society that does not have to rely on nuclear power generation," he said.

"We need to think about the best mix of energy that will give a sense of reassurance to the Japanese people. Some time in the middle of this year we would like to set the direction for this strategy."

The prime minister, who came to power almost exactly six months ago, said a year on from the tsunami that claimed 19,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, progress in righting Japan was being made.

But he acknowledged things were not moving as fast as they could.

"Unfortunately there is criticism that what we have done has been inadequate and we have been slow," he said. "We have to be receptive to such criticism."

He said recovery work was well under way, but that reconstruction would continue "intensively" for five years and should be complete in a decade.

"When it comes to reconstruction in areas seriously hit by the tsunami there is debate over whether they have to move to higher ground," he said.

"I think that local residents have to discuss and decide...and time is needed for that."


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Japan's tsunami victims: healed but still scarred
Ishinomaki, Japan (AFP) Feb 29, 2012
A year ago, a desperate young mother stood amid the ruins of her devastated city wrapped in a blanket as she scoured tsunami wreckage for her missing son. Twelve months on, Yuko Sugimoto and her family are reunited and living in a temporary home, but the scars from the catastrophe still remain. "The disaster made me realise it's a miracle that tomorrow comes," she said after re-visiting ... read more

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