Logs swept up by the March 11 tsunami remain skewered in toppled homes in the Nakano district of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture. Crushed cars and furniture lie embedded in the rubble and debris that still cover wide areas of the town.
One of the few things undamaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami is a sign at the entrance to a shopping mall in central Futaba. It reads: "Nuclear energy is the energy for a bright future."
What would the residents think about that sign if they do return to the town?
If the evacuees came back now, they would see dozens of police officers and those accompanying them in white protective clothing, masks and goggles searching for bodies.
Many communities along the coast of Fukushima Prefecture were devastated by the tsunami, including the towns of Futaba and Namie, which both lie within 10 kilometers of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Radiation spewed from the plant as well as the huge volume of rubble in the two municipalities have made the search extremely difficult.
In the Nakano district, just 4.5 km north of the Fukushima plant, the ventilation tower of the nuclear facility was clearly visible from where police officers were clearing away rubble in their search for bodies on April 25.
Takaharu Ando, commissioner-general of the National Police Agency, visited the site that day and addressed about 120 officers of Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department and Fukushima prefectural police department.
"With a month and a half having passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and thinking about the feelings of family members of those still listed as missing, it is the duty of the police to find the bodies as soon as possible," Ando said. "I want to encourage those police officers who are working with that thought in mind while ignoring the dangers they face."
However, the dangers from the plant cannot be easily ignored.
All those in the area must wear protective clothing, which was lightweight but also hot and stifling.
The first task for the search unit was to measure the radiation level in the air. Under a newly established rule, search operations are stopped if radiation levels reach 5 millisieverts.
After the radiation was confirmed under that level, the search began.
The Nakano district lies about 300 meters from the coast. One two-story wooden house in the area still had 15 logs still lodged in its first floor, while the roof had been bent backward from the center.
In front of the house, a car and concrete blocks had piled up to a height of about 3 meters. Four unopened bags of adult diapers were found near the house, indicating it was a residence with senior citizens.
After a crane carefully removed large pieces of rubble, police officers removed smaller wooden and metal objects and searched for bodies underneath or between the rubble.
While the use of heavy equipment could have speeded up the work, one police officer explained why they resorted to manual labor.
"We do not want to further damage bodies that are likely already badly damaged because they have not been found for a long time," the officer said.
Generally, if a body is found, the officers place their hands together in prayer, wash away the dirt and transport the body to a morgue where coroners were waiting.
Police officers can be heard saying to the discovered bodies, "We apologize for the long period when you were left alone."
But no bodies were found in Futaba on April 25.
According to Fukushima prefectural police, 112 bodies had been found by April 25 within the jurisdiction of the Futaba Police Station, which covers eight municipalities, including Futaba and Namie. Some 468 people are still listed as missing.
Police searches within a 10-km radius of the Fukushima nuclear plant have led to the discovery of 82 bodies.
Two bodies were found in Namie on April 25.
In the Ukedo district of Namie, located along the coast north of Futaba, I briefly removed my mask only to be hit by the smell of rotting wood and oil.
Boats that had been washed ashore as well as toppled houses were still submerged in water that had not completely receded.
A high-ranking police officer from the Koriyama Police Station who was in charge of search operations in that area said, "We want to return the bodies to bereaved family members as soon as possible."
I came across five cows, two collared dogs and a cat, all alive but thin. However, there was no way to feed them because the gloves were fixed to the protective clothing with tape.
After three and a half hours, I was tested for radiation exposure at a facility in Minami-Soma, further north, that was also devastated by the tsunami.
No problems were found, and the dosimeter dangling from my neck recorded 8 microsieverts, which is 1/250 the annual natural radiation exposure level.
Despite those readings, I still feared what might happen should another explosion rock the nearby nuclear power plant.
Also on my mind were seven strips of adhesive tape about 80 centimeters long that had been laid next to each other along a road that had been pushed up near the fishing port in Namie.
Someone had written on the tape, "To those in Ukedo who died, please rest in peace because those who survived will do their best to carry on."
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