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Japan quake survivor hurt during search for remains of wife, daughter

November 19, 2011 |  4:30 am

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REPORTING FROM ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN -- A broken-hearted man’s search for personal closure from this nation’s deadly earthquake and tsunami has recently resulted in more pain.

Firefighter Mitsuru Oikawa, 30, has spent months searching for the bodies of his wife and baby daughter, who disappeared in the March 11 disaster. Last month, he was injured in a fall during his wanderings.

Oikawa, who was featured in a Times profile in July, tumbled down a ravine when he suddenly lost consciousness while seeking the remains of his 29-year-old wife, Emi, and 15-month-old daughter, Atsuki.

Colleagues said Oikawa had remained so obsessed with this search that he was not sleeping at night and apparently passed out while traversing a steep hillside.

He fell into a ravine, fracturing his skull and breaking a cheekbone. He was able to walk to a hospital, where he has remained for nearly a month.

“Friends said that in recent weeks he was becoming more upbeat at work, like he was before the disaster, but that when he went back to the empty apartment he once shared with his family, he became depressed again,” said Hiroyuki Takeuchi, city editor of the  the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun, the city's daily newspaper.

That’s when Oikawa would return to his drill, grabbing a shovel and chainsaw and gathering up the three precious photographs of his family that he always keeps by his side during his solitary hunts.

One picture was a family portrait, with Emi dressed in a traditional kimono; the second was a shot of the baby in her car seat; and the third showed Emi and Atsuki with a niece, who is also missing.

The disaster hit Ishinomaki hard. Of 8,000 people still missing across northeastern Japan, 2,770 are from this farm and fishing village of 160,000 residents; it also has the highest confirmed death toll, 3,100.

Oikawa has said that he knows he will never find his family alive. More likely, they will be horribly decomposed, but he just wanted them back. Friends and colleagues said it was his way of finding closure.

“Those closest to him said he had become more and more obsessed,” said Takeuchi, whose newspaper has done a story on Oikawa. “He was awake at night, all the time thinking about his family, angry at himself because he couldn’t protect them.”

The couple met at a friend's wedding in 2002. Emi was a shy nurse’s aide and Oikawa was immediately drawn to her. They married in 2009 and Atsuki was born that December.

In hundreds of hours of searching, Oikawa discovered a few personal effects he said belonged to his lost family, a piece of their clothing, a shoe, a baby's face towel, but nothing more.

Oikawa said this summer that he would continue searching until he found the remains, even if it took years.

"I'm stubborn," he said. "When I've searched the land, I'll fish rivers and streams in the hope I'll hook one of their bodies. Whatever shape they're in, I just want them back."

But lately he had been having second thoughts.

He told friends that he planned to hold a religious ceremony as a way “to send the spirits of his wife and daughter into heaven.” That way, he said, he could end his quest.

“But secretly he kept looking,” said Takeuchi, who in the recent Times story talked of his town being possessed by a “raw psychological wound that won’t heal.”

The editor says he believes that Oikawa will begin the search for his family once he is well enough to walk again.

“I don’t think he will stop, even after this. He feels this compelling sense of duty,” Takeuchi said. “Maybe, like other people in this town, he’ll find his own personal way to come to terms with his grief. I hope so.”

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-- John M. Glionna

Photo: Mitsuru Oikawa, a firefighter in Ishinomaki, Japan, holds a photo of his wife and daughter, who were lost in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Credit: Tom Miyagawa Coulton / For The Times

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