Photo/IllutrationNobuyuki Sato looks at photo of his wife, Saiko, in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, in June 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KESENNUMA, Miyagi Prefecture--Nobuyuki Sato’s voice trembled as he spoke tearfully to about 100 bones placed in a small casket at a police station here on Dec. 11. His desperate search for his beloved wife of 40 years, missing since the 2011 tsunami, was finally over.

“You must have been in pain,” Sato, 67, said to the remains of his wife, Saiko. “It must have been harrowing. You must have been anguished.”

Sato last saw Saiko exactly seven years and nine months ago.

On March 11, 2011, Sato was eating lunch with Saiko, then 60, and his mother at their home located about 500 meters from the sea in Kesennuma.

“Saiko cooked for me instant noodles with eggs and some other ingredients,” he recalled. “I ate it, then I left home, saying, ‘I’m going.’”

The Great East Japan Earthquake struck soon thereafter, spawning a tsunami that devastated the coast of the Tohoku region.

When Sato finally managed to get home a few hours after the quake, he found the wreckage of the house and the body of his mother.

But Saiko was nowhere to be found.

Sato said Saiko had provided crucial support for his work running a family farm.

When a storm damaged their greenhouse in late December 38 years ago and ruined the strawberries that were awaiting shipment, Sato said he was saved from despair by Saiko’s cheerful and encouraging words.

“Let’s start over again,” she told him.

“She worked very hard with me and never complained,” Sato said. “I should have told her more often how grateful I was for her help.”

Sato, who has been living alone in public housing for disaster victims in Kesennuma, never stopped searching for Saiko.

Every month, he and his former neighbors, whose loved ones also disappeared in the disaster, would gather at a beach and dig through the sand in hopes of finding a piece of bone or anything else that could lead to an identification.

On Oct. 24, Ren Sasaki, a worker for Hisamitsugumi, a construction company based in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture, saw something in the soil when he was inspecting heavy equipment near a monument dedicated to disaster victims on Iwaisaki beach.

“I instantly realized that they were human bones,” said Sasaki, 27, who used to be a nurse. “I suspected they belonged to a victim of the earthquake.”

The Kesennuma Police Station was notified and started a large-scale search operation involving 57 officers.

They dug into the soil manually and discovered the bones of almost an entire body.

After testing the DNA and checking dental records, police identified the remains as those of Saiko on Dec. 4.

The bones were found only about 900 meters from where Sato’s house used to stand.

Sato retrieved the remains at the police station, as well as Saiko’s apron and other articles that were found near the monument.

Police also presented a letter of appreciation to two construction companies, Hisamitsugumi and Hiranogumi of Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, for helping in the search. The two companies are still digging soil and removing the wreckage of a seawall that collapsed in the tsunami.

According to police, 1,220 residents in Miyagi Prefecture are still listed as missing from the disaster. Among the 9,540 bodies that have been recovered, 10 have yet to be identified.