Emotions fuel searches for the missing in Japan

Rescue workers look on March 14, 2011, for missing people in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, following the tsunami and earthquake on March 11.
Rescue workers look on March 14, 2011, for missing people in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, following the tsunami and earthquake on March 11. Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Japanese officials say they fear that at least 10,000 people could be dead as a result of Friday's earthquake and tsunami. So far, about 2,000 bodies have been found. With so many people still missing, thousands of Japanese are crisscrossing the area where the tsunami hit in northeastern Japan, trying to find their loved ones.

Shoko Ono is a real estate agent in Tokyo, 200 miles south of where her parents and grandparents live near Sendai. When the earthquake struck, the 23-year-old tried over and over to call, but with phone lines and cell phone reception down, there was only one thing left to do.

She went to the bank and took out as much money as she could, she says. Then she headed north by train. When there were no more trains, she took taxis. It cost her the better part of $800, but 18 hours later, she was approaching her home near Sendai.

Hunting For A Sign

Thousands of displaced people are being housed in temporary evacuation shelters in the area.

At one center, in the Shichigo Elementary school in a suburb of Sendai, several thousand people — men, women, children, babies and pensioners — are all squeezed into classrooms. Their mattresses and blankets line the floors like sardines. Some listen to a local radio station that broadcasts lists of survivors' names to help connect loved ones.

Just inside the entrance of the elementary school, there is a huge board with all sorts of hand-scrawled notes — some with the names of the missing and others with messages like, "We're safe. Come and find us on the third floor."

The writer of one note is looking for an 80-year-old grandmother — small with white hair. The note gives a number to "please, please" call if she's spotted.

As they look at the messages, Naomi Abe and her friend point and exclaim when they see Abe's sister's name scrawled on the board. But then the roller coaster of emotions that is coursing through this town comes shuddering through Abe, as she realizes the message is written not by her sister, but by her sister's children, who are also searching for her sister, their mother.

Her Japanese stoicism stretched to breaking point, Abe weeps as she writes her cell phone number next to the message on the board, with a note for her sister to call her.

A Bittersweet Homecoming

Outside Sendai, Ono, the 23-year-old who took the $800 taxi ride from Tokyo, completes the last part of her journey to her parents' house on foot.

The family dog welcomes her to a home largely undamaged by the earthquake, and a mother stunned by her arrival.

There's no hugging or kissing, just gasps of surprise and shock as she stands and bows to her parents. They bow, too — the emotion of the moment palpable, even though nobody touches anyone.

Ono's mother tells her that they are all right, although they have no electricity or water. But they don't know about Ono's grandparents, whose house may have been destroyed. There's no way to get where they live, near the ocean.

They hope the grandparents were evacuated somewhere else, Ono's mother says, but it seems impossible that they might still be alive.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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