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Fukushima man still digging for remains of family lost to tsunami

Takayuki Ueno

FUKUSHIMA -- For Takayuki Ueno, 43, whose father and son were never found after being lost to the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake, moving forward after the tragedy has not been an option.

    Nearly every weekend, he comes to the beach to dig for their remains.

    "I am hoping to find even just one bone fragment," he murmurs. "If I don't make an effort, there's no possibility of finding them. But if I do try, there is always that chance."

    Ueno's 63-year-old father, 60-year-old mother, 8-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old son were caught in the tsunami at their home in the city of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 11, 2011.

    With no police officers or Japan Self Defense Force personnel present due to the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, Ueno began searching for his family together with firefighter friends of his.

    He found the bodies of more than 40 people he knew -- along with those of his mother and daughter. To date, however, he has still not located his father or his son.

    Ueno's wife, who was pregnant at the time of the disaster, evacuated outside of the prefecture -- and was therefore unable to attend her daughter's cremation ceremony.

    Reaching out for volunteers via Facebook in the summer of 2011, Ueno created a volunteer search group that he called the "reconstruction beach team." Through this action, he was able to meet other survivors who were searching for their missing relatives -- thereby expanding the scope of his initiative.

    The search crew sorted through the wreckage of homes and cars along the coastal areas designated as "difficult-to-return" zones due to radiation contamination, prompting Ueno to ask pointedly, "When government officials say that 'reconstruction is proceeding steadily,' just what areas are they referring to?"

    Ueno's source of emotional support has been his wife, 39, and his 4-year-old daughter, who was born after the disaster.

    But he is haunted by a lingering thought: "I was unable to protect my children. As a father, I failed."

    At one point, Ueno even believed that after he found his son's remains, he would kill himself. But then another idea suddenly crossed his mind: "My son likely arranged it so that I wouldn't find him in order that I would go on living."

    It was at this point that he made the decision to choose life.

    Hoping to transform into joy the countless tears that have spilled onto his land, Ueno plans to create a maze of field mustard flowers in front of his home this spring -- and to set off fireworks this summer on the beach to honor the hard work of his team.

    Ueno worked at an agricultural cooperative before the disaster, but he quit in order to devote himself to the search effort. He now also farms, and earns his living from jobs including clearing away rubble.

    More than 2,500 people remain missing in the three prefectures affected by the disaster -- and Ueno plans to continue working to help find them for as long as his physical condition allows.

    "As survivors," he says, "this is our responsibility."

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