ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN — For months now, the drill has been the same: Maromu Oikawa grabs a shovel and chainsaw and gathers up the three precious photographs.
Then he ventures out alone, on foot, on a mission that has become a painful personal obsession. He is a husband and father desperately trying to reclaim what he has lost.
The 30-year-old firefighter combs the riverbanks, rubble-strewn rice fields and weed-choked gullies where he thinks he might find them. He uses the shovel to pry up chunks of concrete, the saw to slice through jagged shards of wood, looking for that chance macabre encounter: the jutting form of a hand, a face.
Oikawa is searching for the bodies of his wife and baby daughter, who disappeared March 11 when the earthquake-triggered tsunami washed across this rural landscape, pulling houses from their foundations and dragging residents to their deaths.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, July 18, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Tsunami survivor: An article in the July 16 Section A about a Japanese tsunami victim's search for his family misspelled the first name of firefighter Mamoru Oikawa as Maromu. In Japanese, Mamoru means "to protect."
The disaster hit this farm and fishing community of 160,000 hard. Of 8,000 people still missing across northeastern Japan, 2,770 are from Ishinomaki; it also has the highest confirmed death toll, 3,100.
Oikawa knows he will never find his family alive. More likely, if he locates their bodies at all, they will be horribly decomposed, the remains perhaps ravaged by animals. But Oikawa doesn't care. He just wants them back.
Often, in moments of doubt, as he scours country back roads and rarely trodden trails, he takes out the photographs of his 29-year-old wife, Emi, and 15-month-old Atsuki and he talks to them.
"I'm sorry," he says softly. "I'm sorry."
In Japanese, Maromu means "to protect," and he chastises himself for failing so miserably with the two people he loved most.
He's sorry that he couldn't protect them; sorry that he wasn't there when the waves took them; sorry that they had such shortened lives.
This region is full of survivors with missing friends and family members. Yet as the weeks and months pass, most slowly relinquish their slim hope of ever recovering the dead.
But Oikawa says he won't stop until he finds his wife and daughter.
"I'll still be looking next year," he said, "and the year after that."
In such a small city, the absence of the dead and disappeared is felt every day: They're the attorney, the grocery store bagger, the mechanic, the woman who sold flowers from the roadside stand.
"The town seems back to normal," said newspaper editor Hiroyuki Takeuchi. "But inside, there's a raw psychological wound that won't heal."
Families still languish in evacuation shelters, breadwinners are without homes or jobs or realistic prospects for either. Some commit suicide rather than face their losses.
Since March, 500 bodies have turned up here, one or two each day. Every time one is found, the waiting families anxiously report to the coroner's office, believing this might be the day. But even the discovery of a body brings no immediate reprieve from the uncertainty. Most are so decomposed they're identifiable only through DNA analysis.
Mental health officials are seeing post-traumatic stress and obsessive rituals of grief among survivors, such as the woman whose daughter drowned inside her school bus. The mother returns daily to the spot where the bus was found, searching for mementos.
Oikawa has spent more than 200 hours -- at least an hour every day -- looking not just for the remains of Emi and Atsuki, but for anything else he can hold on to: a piece of their clothing, a shoe, a baby's face towel.
"They haunt him," said Keitaro Kimura, a friend of Oikawa. "The fact he's still looking shows how much he loved them."
They met at a friend's wedding in 2002. Emi was shy and petite and Oikawa was immediately drawn to her. Over the months, he realized that the nurse's aide saw the world as he did.
The couple married in 2009 and Atsuki was born that December.
Oikawa displayed the three cherished photographs: A family portrait, with Emi dressed in a traditional kimono; a shot of the baby in her car seat; and one with Emi and Atsuki with a niece, who is also missing.
When asked about his family's disappearance, he sat back in his chair at the fire station, wearing his crisply pressed uniform. "I have to do this slowly," he said. Then he sat in silence for nearly a minute.
Finally, he began to speak: In the minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m., Oikawa was swamped with work at the station. With the phones out, he worried about his family's whereabouts.
At 3 p.m., not long before the tsunami hit, he got a text message that Emi and the baby were at a nearby evacuation center. But he couldn't go to them; his work demanded that he assist in responding to the town's catastrophe. The brief message from his wife would have to do for now, he told himself.
Four days later, he was finally able to drive to the center.
"The building was no longer there; it was just washed away," he said.
Oikawa sat in the car, dumbfounded. "I knew they were gone," he said. "I was dead inside. There was no crying or anger, only emptiness."