Norio Kimura, 50, who lost his father, wife and elder daughter in the March 11, 2011 tsunami, is reflected in a window of his missing younger daughter Yuna's classroom of Kumamachi Elementary School inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 14. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

Searching for Loved Ones

MARCH 04, 2016

Norio Kimura, 50, who lost his father, wife and elder daughter in the March 11, 2011 tsunami, is reflected in a window of his missing younger daughter Yuna's classroom of Kumamachi Elementary School inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 14. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

Norio Kimura, 50, who lost his father, wife and younger daughter in the March 11, 2011 tsunami, poses with a portrait of his missing daughter Yuna at a temple near his home inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 14. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

A toy damaged in the March 11, 2011 tsunami, is seen inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 14. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

A portrait of Kotaro Ueno, the son of Takayuki Ueno, 43, who lost his parents, daughter and son in the March 11, 2011 tsunami, is displayed at his home in the area damaged by the tsunami in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan,Feb 15. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

Takayuki Ueno, 43, who lost his parents, daughter and son in the March 11, 2011 tsunami, searches for missing people inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 14. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

A Reuters reporter measures a radiation level of 9.76 microsieverts per hour in front of Kumamachi Elementary School inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 16. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

A volunteer feeds swans in an area destroyed by the March 11, 2011 tsunami inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 14. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

A dismantled sign that reads, "Nuclear Power - The Energy for a Better Future", is seen in the exclusion zone in Futaba, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 14. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

A damaged house is seen in an area destroyed by the March 11, 2011 tsunami inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 13. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

Swings in a kindergarten yard are covered in weeds inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Feb 13. (Reuters Photo/Toru Hanai)

A magnitude 9 earthquake and towering tsunami on March 11, 2011 killed nearly 16,000 people along Japan's northeastern coast and left more than 2,500 missing.

The nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has made the experience of those who lived nearby particularly traumatic. Takayuki Ueno did not hesitate one moment to expose himself to high radiation five years ago while searching for family members swept away by the tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The bodies of his mother and daughter Erika were found. But Ueno braves radiation and bitter cold on beaches near the crippled plant to look for the remains of his father and son Kotaro, then three years old, to bring closure to his loss. "My highest duty as a parent was to protect my children, which I failed to fulfill. That makes me the worst parent, and I have to apologise to them," Ueno, 43, told Reuters.

"I was able to hold Erika in my arms and say 'I am sorry'. I have yet to be able to do the same to Kotaro," said Ueno, who lives 22 km (14 miles) north of the Fukushima nuclear plant. Norio Kimura, who lived 3 km south of the plant, had to choose between staying behind to search for his father, wife and younger daughter Yuna, or taking his mother and elder daughter away from spreading radiation.

"I was torn by having to abandon my search and leave them behind... By the time I came back, the situation had become quite grim when it comes to finding them alive," Kimura, 50, said. The accident still hampers Kimura's effort to find Yuna, the last family member missing, as entry into half of his hometown, Okuma, is restricted due to high radiation levels. On a recent weekend, Kimura and a dozen volunteers led by Ueno, combed through piles of debris on a windswept Okuma beach for any signs of Yuna. They are allowed to enter the area up to 30 times a year and stay for up to five hours per visit. As they dug through heaps of dirt mixed with driftwood, blocks of concrete, utility poles, crooked iron pipes and clothes of all sizes and colours, a dosimetre emitted high-pitched beeps. At one point, it showed six microsieverts per hour, 100 times as high as radiation levels in downtown Tokyo.

That does not shake Kimura's resolve. "I'll keep on searching until I find her," Kimura said, adding that even then he might keep looking for other missing victims.

Such tenacity can be partly explained by views of life and death widely held in Asia, experts say.

"Once dead, a body itself is often seen and treated as an object in the West," said Shinichi Niwa, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Fukushima Medical University's Aizu Medical Center.

"In Asia, there is a strong belief that one's spirit stays with the body and they are not separated," he said.

Reuters

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