SENDAI--Dentists work in one room of the Miyagi prefectural police headquarters trying to match dental records with unidentified bodies in the morgue.
The dentists check on the type of treatment on the teeth of the bodies and conduct a database search using biometric identification techniques.
A number of dentists compare every tooth with various records and discuss among themselves to determine if an identification can be confirmed.
Jun Kashiwazaki is the deputy head of the group within the Miyagi Prefecture Dental Association set up to identify disaster victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
"While we want the dental records to match, we also have to be careful because making a mistake would have terrible consequences," Kashiwazaki said.
The large number of people still missing three months after the March 11 quake has given greater importance to dentists and the role they can play in identifying bodies.
In addition to dental records, the clothing worn as well as the location where the body was found are also taken into consideration before the prefectural police decides that an identity has been confirmed.
With so much time having passed since the quake and tsunami, many of the bodies now brought to the morgue are decomposed beyond recognition, and many have no personal belongings that may help identify a body.
Because teeth change very little, they have been an important factor in identifying bodies. The dental association group to identify bodies is led by Toshimitsu Ezawa, and six dentists began taking records of the teeth of bodies brought to the police morgue from March 12.
Dentists from Tohoku University as well as other prefectures have also helped out and on some days as many as 60 dentists have been involved.
Some of those dentists are themselves disaster victims.
Hiroyuki Miyake, 39, is the fourth generation in his family to become a dentist. He has an office in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, but was involved in identifying bodies for about a month after the quake and tsunami.
Lines of people waited outside the morgue as part of their search for loved ones.
One woman looked at the clothes on a body that was badly damaged and cried out, "This is undoubtedly my husband."
Miyake said he continued with the work he was unaccustomed to because he wanted to return the bodies to bereaved family members as soon as possible.
Among the bodies he helped identify were some of his own patients.
One was a high school student whose cavity Miyake fixed. He remembers the girl saying, "I will drink a bottle of carbonated beverages when taking part in club activities at school."
At times, Miyake has had to stop working and wipe away tears when he recalls what some of his patients said. One homemaker who he treated said, "I want to eat many delicious foods with my own teeth for my entire life."
The Miyagi Prefecture Dental Association had begun a joint training exercise with the prefectural police since 2008 to prepare for natural disasters and accidents.
However, the March 11 disaster went way beyond what anyone had imagined.
"This is unprecedented for an advanced nation, and the conditions are just too bad," said Takafumi Aoki, a professor at Tohoku University's Graduate School of Information Sciences who is helping the dentists as a biometric identification expert. "Japanese people only become convinced after the remains of a loved one are returned to them. We have to do whatever we can."
(This article was written by Kazuyo Nakamura and Kenichiro Shino.)
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