The official death toll has risen by fewer than 100 over the past 24 hours, to 10,151. During the same time, the number of missing has fallen by about 500 to 17,053, suggesting that identifications of the dead are reducing the latter list. But no one is fooled; the number actually missing is far higher than the list of missing people would suggest. Whole towns are gone, and their people with them.
To create its daily official death toll, the government counts the bodies collected from the shores of tsunami-ravaged northeast Japan, and says that more will come. It counts the bodies collected as it slowly and carefully cleans up the meters-thick layer of mud and debris where towns used to be. It counts the bodies it collects, and warns of untold numbers to come, but it will not speculate on how high those numbers might go… and it does not officially recognize the estimates of the missing from the few remaining local town officials in the devastated area.
The number of survivors in government-operated shelters declines slowly. The highest count given was about 350,000, which is down now to less than 250,000. Still, humanitarian aid distribution is difficult. While some say delivery of humanitarian aid has turned the corner, for many it remains elusive. The lack of fuel, the destruction of roads and rail, and the fact that many roads are simply blocked by the mud and debris left by the retreating tsunami, mean that getting through with food and water is often difficult. Even, according to some reports, the Yakuza are complaining that their humanitarian efforts are often unsuccessful because of such impediments.
The temporary return of winter has once again made life more miserable for the refugees. With no heat or light, and not enough food to sustain them, sub-freezing temperatures are a threat to the more vulnerable among them… especially the aged, of whom there are many. Illness has become a factor as well, and the indirect effects of the tsunami, hunger, disease and despair, are about to begin adding to the death toll.
Winter also makes the clean up more difficult, since the government is attempting to clean up in a fashion that allows for the recovery of bodies without their destruction in the process, and that means the use of truly heavy machinery and rapid excavation techniques is not possible. As hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies are uncovered the death toll will continue to rise.
Japan faces, as did America after 9/11, months of constant reminders in body count and devastation as the clean up continues.