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Japan: As Recovery Of Bodies Continues, Officials Fear Disease, Suicide

Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members search for missing people in their third major recovery operation since the March 11 earthquake.
Hiro Komae
Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members search for missing people in their third major recovery operation since the March 11 earthquake.

Today, the Japanese government launched it biggest search and recovery effort yet. Six weeks after an earthquake and a powerful tsunami struck the country's northeast coast, the death toll stands at 14,300 and 11,900 are still missing.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Japan deployed 25,000 troops and will be assisted by the U.S. Army. Navy divers are looking for bodies up to 12 miles off the coast:

The operation follows last week's five-day search mission that involved underwater US and Japanese robots. It failed to uncover any bodies, but officials were hopeful that the latest attempt would be more successful since water levels have receded. They warned that corpses would be unrecognizable and their age and gender difficult to determine due to decomposition.

The Independent talked to one woman in the devastated town of Rikuzentakata who lost her father in the tsunami. "Some families want to see their loved-ones one last time so they can say goodbye," Naomi Fujino told The Independent. "But I don't want to see my father. I don't think I could stand it so it's better that he is left in peace at sea."

Perhaps a sign of how dire things are in Japan is what public health officials are reporting: The Wall Street Journal reports that hospitals in the northeast coast have seen a surge in elderly patients with pneumonia. 210 miles north of Tokyo, the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital "has been treating pneumonia patients at roughly five times the normal rate since the March 11 disaster." The conditions at shelters, reports the Journal, are taking its toll on elderly, who often have weaker immune systems.

The Los Angeles Times has another grim report. The number of suicides is slowly tricking up. The paper reports:

It's a trickle [Naoko Sugimoto] fears may soon become a river: the farmer who hanged himself, distressed about a cabbage harvest ruined by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant; the overworked government worker near the complex who took his life; the father who killed himself after a fruitless search for his child after the tsunami.

"I feel sorry for these people in the same way I do for those who died in the tsunami," said Sugimoto, 67, who heads a national suicide support group, Izoku Shien. "But they didn't die in the tsunami; they died afterward. They took their own lives. And that makes you ask yourself, 'What could we have done?'"

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Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.