Here today, cremated yesterday

IT WAS, the police said, a simple matter of mistaken identity. Could have happened to anyone. 'We followed standard procedure throughout the case,' said a slightly embarrassed officer at Hino police station in western Tokyo, as he tried to explain how last month the wrong body had been cremated in a missing person case. A day after the cremation the man believed to be dead turned up again, very much alive.

'It has been 38 years since I began working as a policeman, and it is the first time I have come across such a mistake,' said the officer, who did not want his name mentioned.

The mix-up began early in the morning of 17 December when the body of a man was found in a sports park in Hino. He had frozen to death. Neighbours told the police he resembled a 45-year-old local man, whose older brother lived nearby. The police went to the man's house, and discovered that the younger brother had indeed been missing for three days. The devastated older brother was brought to the mortuary, and duly identified the corpse.

Not suspecting anything, the police handed over the body to his older brother, who in the normal Japanese way held a cremation the next day. That was Friday. On Saturday, the younger brother returned home, was shocked to hear of his premature death, and the two brothers shamefacedly returned to the police station.

There is a Japanese saying that somewhere in the world there are three people who resemble you exactly. 'The dead man was clearly one of the three who looked like the brother,' said the policeman. 'His face, height and physique were just the same.'

The question now, of course, is who the cremated man really was. Other people with missing relatives have been calling the police station, but with just a pile of ashes to go on, and no fingerprints or dental records, the officer said it 'might take some time' before they establish his identity.

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