Search goes on for thousands of Japan's tsunami missing

ISHINOMAKI, Japan - Leaden winter skies lour on a coastguard boat as it cuts its way through the seas off Japan's tsunami-wrecked shores.

Somewhere under these unforgiving grey waters lie hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies; the unfound, unclaimed dead of one of the country's worst ever disasters.

Even though the hunt on these sullen seas goes on every day, Yoshifumi Suzuki says none of his coastguard colleagues has seen a single corpse since the partial remains of a man were untangled from a fishing net in November.

But they are not prepared to give up.

"If we don't do this, nobody will," Suzuki said.

"We want to continue the search until we find the very last one. I want to return people to their families not because it is my official duty, but because it is my duty as a human being."

"The (missing) person is in the mind of his or her family but they still want proof that the person lived in this world. I think it's hard for them to accept the reality" without a body, he said.

The massive tsunami that pummelled Japan in March last year claimed more than 19,000 lives. One-in-six of the dead has never been found.

In the ravaged port city of Ishinomaki and the adjacent town of Onagawa, 20 percent of the 4,700 victims are still officially listed as missing, although no-one believes they will be found alive.

"If the sea was transparent, we would be able to find more people. It's awful," Suzuki told AFP aboard the 26-ton Shimakaze.

Occasional snow stings the five-strong crew as they peer through winter fog at the surface of the sea and use underwater sonar equipment to detect submerged cars or other debris that can trap bodies.

If they see anything that suggests a corpse, they call for divers.

But visibility below the surface is only one metre (three feet) and the cold temperature means frogmen can be in the water for no more than a few minutes.

Yoshiyuki Kikuchi, the captain of the Shimakaze, remembers the horror of the tsunami and the frantic days he spent in the initial search for bodies.

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