- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

OTSUCHI, JAPAN | Survivors across northern Japan say they suspect the death toll from the March 11 tsunami is much higher than the official figure of more than 15,000 dead and nearly 8,000 missing nationwide.

Residents count nearly 9,000 missing from this fishing village alone.

Exhausted government officials say their first priority has been to care for the living, rather than count the dead. Only a nationwide census can determine the final death toll, they say.

But local officials in Otsuchi would like to know exactly who is alive or dead. They need to prepare a voter-registration list in order to conduct an election, perhaps as early as August, to replace the mayor and 31 other officials killed in the town hall, which was swamped by 50-foot-high waves.

“I think the government should tell us more quickly the real story of what happened here,” said city council member Takaaki Goto, a 74-year-old former geography teacher and soccer coach.

His complaint reflects growing anger and impatience among the Japanese for national leaders and electric-company owners suspected of hiding the extent of the nuclear crisis caused by the tsunami.

Japan’s normally compliant population changed after the disaster at the Fukushima power plant spread radiation throughout the region in the weeks after the earthquake and tsunami.

Three months later, local residents are questioning why the national government cannot give them reliable figures on the living and the dead.

In Otsuchi, the numbers they do have don’t add up. According to the last national census in October, Otsuchi had 15,277 residents.

Now local officials can only verify that 6,466 people are living: 1,969 people in shelters and 4,497 in homes on higher ground. That head count of survivors suggests that nearly 9,000 people, more than half the town, perished in the tsunami, but officials are not sure.

“We don’t know anything about where these people are,” said Manabu Kikuchi, a local administrator from nearby Kamaishi city, who came to Otsuchi to work temporarily in the place of the 32 officials who died March 11.

“Maybe they went away from here to stay with families in Morioka or perhaps Tokyo. Or maybe they are missing and dead. We want to know where they are. We still have to keep searching for them.”

As of May 28, officials had counted 771 bodies, enough to fill 14 pages of a list at the entrance of evacuation centers. Survivors also had filled out forms to report 952 people as missing.

Mr. Kikuchi said the national police agency, which alone has the authority to tabulate the official nationwide death toll, can report only what it knows for sure, rather than make estimates.

Speaking privately, police officers and soldiers in disaster zones say the tallies are, indeed, a work in progress.

The tsunami was most devastating in Iwate province - obliterating most of Otsuchi, Rikuzen-Takata, Yamata and other towns. But the official toll of 4,533 dead and 2,786 missing in Iwate is roughly half that of Miyagi province’s toll of 9,228 dead and 4,781 missing, according to the National Police Agency’s website.

The website lists only 167 injured in Iwate, compared with 3,461 in Miyagi, an indication that reports from Iwate remain incomplete.

Because of the loss of officials, Otsuchi’s recovery remains far behind other towns. Soldiers are still walking through rubble here, poking with sticks in search of bodies or clues about missing persons.

At a gym atop a bluff overlooking the disaster zone, survivors have posted the names, birth dates and photos of missing relatives and friends, filling dozens of sheets of paper on walls. Others use donated computers to search for any information on missing people.

“Perhaps a normal city hall could count the numbers of dead and living,” said Susumu Fujiwara, 35, a soccer coach and high school teacher. “In our case in Otsuchi, there’s no data. All the records were washed away, so we can’t count.

“I think the government should tell us more quickly the real story of what happened here.”

Mr. Goto estimated the real number of missing is 2,500 to 3,000 - about three times the official toll of 952 missing.

“There are many people who had no families, so nobody was left to report them as missing,” he said, sitting at a desk near his space on the floor of a local gym.

“There are also families who were all swept away together, and there’s nobody left to report them as well.”

He said it is possible that some people left to stay with relatives and didn’t tell the authorities where they are. But he said it is also highly likely that many people ignored warnings or couldn’t escape in time.

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