Disaster victims IDed through hand-drawn police sketches

June 14, 2012


SENDAI--Police sketch artist Kazuo Koriyama is used to drawing images of bad guys, but now he's putting his pencil to work to help identify victims of last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

Through his images, he is hoping to help their family members discover the bodies of their loved ones.

Koriyama, 51, a veteran ID officer at the Miyagi prefectural police department, often spends three hours without a break to complete one portrait, gazing at the victim's photographs.

“Bodies sometimes appear in my dreams,” he said.

Koriyama and an officer who retired this spring are tasked with rendering portraits of about 70 victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

Twenty portraits were released on the prefectural police website at the end of May. Police received 20 reports in five days, and three bodies were identified in June.

In Miyagi Prefecture, 9,516 bodies were recovered after the disaster, with 199 yet to be identified as of June 12.

For people looking for missing relatives, it is a great mental burden to scrutinize photographs of many dead persons.

Police officials in charge of missing and unidentified victims thought portraits might help because they could be shown to many people, such as friends and colleagues.

Koriyama has sketched portraits of crime suspects for 25 years and teaches the art at a police academy.

But his initial reaction to the idea was nearly a definite no.

Police artists sketch suspect portraits based on eyewitness accounts. No one is available to describe the facial features of unidentified victims.

When he started working on the first portrait, Koriyama thought about tsunami victims around him, such as his senior colleague on the police force and the father of a colleague.

“I’ve got to complete this portrait so that the victim can be found by the family,” he thought.

Koriyama uses a mechanical pencil and drawing paper. He can finish only several portraits a day because of the nerve-fraying nature of his assignment.

He first works on less damaged parts of the bodies and moves on to other parts, repairing damage in his mind based on his experience as an ID officer.

One of the police portraits helped Shiroshi Sugawara, 53, find the body of his father-in-law, Arinori, who died in the tsunami in Kesennuma at age 79.

“A portrait is a good idea because you can recall how he looked when he was alive and well,” Sugawara said.

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Kazuo Koriyama (The Asahi Shimbun)

Kazuo Koriyama (The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Kazuo Koriyama (The Asahi Shimbun)
  • A police portrait of Arinori Sugawara (Provided by Miyagi prefectural police department)

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