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As the death toll soars, Japan finds comfort amid its carnage

With 20,000 feared dead, a nation learns to cope

Yoshi Nakamora is being forced to confront a decision she would rather not have had to make.

There has been no news about her brother since the tsunami struck more than a week ago and she does not know what to do. Tsunamis were relatively common in Japan, she explained, and a tradition had developed whereby families unable to find the body of a relative could take a piece of bone, a stone or a keepsake, have it blessed, cremated and buried – and then try and move on with their lives.

"I cannot find my brother's name on the list. I think the tsunami took him," Mrs Nakamora, 64, said, sitting in an evacuation centre in the coastal community of Miyako City. "There is a tradition that when a tsunami picks up a body and takes it, the family picks up a stone and takes it to the temple and has a ceremony with it.

"Sometimes I feel like never giving up on the belief that he is alive. Other times I feel like I should have this ceremony."

Japan's official death toll currently stands at 8,100 and is expected to top 20,000. At this stage – which previous history suggests is past the point when the sea returns bodies it has taken – it is very likely many of the dead will never be found. Steadily, clean-up operations are getting underway in stricken communities. Heavy machinery has arrived to clear the confetti of debris and shredded metal, though workers have to proceed cautiously so they do not damage any bodies that may still be hidden.

Efforts to recover from the most powerful earthquake and tsunami in the nation's history continue, especially in the worst-hit north-east of Japan, where about 400,000 people are still sheltering in gymnasiums and schools while workers battle to prevent a nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

Hot food, water and fuel is in short supply and phone networks are still down in many areas, leaving thousands unable to contact missing loved ones.

On this stretch of coast, where memories of tsunamis and lost fishing boats are shared collectively, people are again turning to rituals created by the exigencies of life next to an unforgiving ocean. For those relatives looking to pay their respects and grieve, the tradition of burying a symbolic "body" is practical and a source of comfort.

It is not just in natural disasters that the tradition has been used. During the Second World War, families of soldiers who died in battle far away would accept a necklace from a surviving soldier and perform the ceremony with that, Souichirou Tashubana, a 50-year-old man whose home was destroyed in the tsunami, said.

"This item did not even have to have belonged to the person. But they would take it to the temple, have it cremated and then bury the ashes in the plot."

He said the process was important to give people a focus for their grief. "Traditionally it was the case that if you did not do this you would feel stress because you could not pray for that person and end the cycle and move forward... they do this when there is no other choice."

The practice was also performed in the aftermath of the 1985 crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, which ploughed into Mt Takamagahara, killing 520 people.

"Families and friends scoured the mountainside looking for remains," John Breen, editor of the Japan Review, said. "In the absence of a body, a piece of bone or even a piece of clothing can become the focus of ritual offerings."

In recent days, the people of Miyako have been coming to Bunkai Abe to search for some insight. As the senior priest of a Buddhist temple set on a hillside of scented pines, Mr Abe has done what he can.

He said the time period a grieving family would wait before accepting that they might never find a body varied. With the knowledge that his temple was itself destroyed by a tsunami in 1618, he approved of the symbolic cremation tradition for those bodies taken by the sea.

"We feel more peaceful," he said. "We pray to them. One period of this life comes to an end and we move to the next stage. We put the ash in a box in the ground and we can feel like person is there. If we did not use something then there would be nothing there."

The priest and his counterparts at temples along the coast have also been confronted with the problem of how to deal with the bodies that have been found, amid a severe shortage of kerosene for cremations.

While burial was once part of the Japanese Buddhist tradition, nowadays cremation, which is followed by the burial of the ashes, is used in almost every instance.

Currently, the burial of thousands of people is being proposed to skirt the kerosene shortage, which is something that many Japanese find culturally disturbing. For the survivors, meanwhile, the pain goes on, collectively and individually for those facing circumstances cloaked in uncertainty.

One recent afternoon, Takashi Asada, a boat engineer, was walking among flattened buildings close to the waterfront.

"After the earthquake, officials came around saying 'get out, get out'. A neighbour's husband went to get the car. She went to the second floor. A few seconds later the tsunami came. He was swept away," he said.

"The woman saw the tsunami take her husband. She believes he husband is still alive, but her son was also taken by the tsunami." Mr Asada said in recent days the woman had been coming to the waterfront to search for the two people she prays may somehow have survived.

She had been there earlier that afternoon, he said. He gestured out over the landscape of wreckage, but there was nobody there.