Image: Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members search for missing people
Hiro Komae  /  AP
Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members search for missing people in their third major recovery operation since the March 11 earthquake in Shichigahamamachi, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 25.
By
updated 4/25/2011 3:00:14 PM ET 2011-04-25T19:00:14

A line of somber soldiers walked methodically through a drained swamp Monday, with each step sinking their slender poles into the muck beneath.

If one hit a body, he would know.

"Bodies feel very distinctive," said Michihiro Ose, a spokesman for the Japanese army's 22nd infantry regiment.

The men were among 25,000 troops given the morbid duty of searching the rubble, the seas and the swamps of northeastern Japan for the bodies of the nearly 12,000 people still missing in last month's earthquake and tsunami.

The two-day operation was the biggest military search since the March 11 disaster. With waters receding, officials hoped the troops, backed by police, coast guard and U.S. forces, would make significant progress. By Monday evening, they had found 38 bodies, the military said.

In the town of Shichigahamamachi, about two dozen Japanese soldiers in black boots, white masks and waterproof jumpsuits traveled silently in unison across the soggy earth, made even softer by torrential rains an hour earlier. In some areas, the mud came up to their knees.

The search focused on a long, narrow marsh drained in recent weeks by the army using special pump trucks.

Once the soldiers reached the end of the marsh, they turned around and walked back. And then back again.

"It's important not to miss anything," Ose said as he watched the soldiers nearly camouflaged by the dark gray mud. "As long as there is time left in the day, we will keep going up and down."

In another part of town, several dozen soldiers cleared mountains of rubble by hand from a waterfront neighborhood filled with gutted and teetering houses. Four people in the neighborhood were missing, said 67-year-old Sannojo Watanabe.

"That was my house right there," he said, pointing to a foundation with nothing atop it.

He surveyed the neighborhood: "There's nothing left here."

A total of 24,800 soldiers — backed by 90 helicopters and planes — were sent to comb through the rubble for buried remains, while 50 boats and 100 navy divers searched the waters up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) off the coast to find those swept out to sea.

The search is far more difficult than that for earthquake victims, who would mostly be under rubble. The tsunami could have left the victims anywhere.

"We just don't know where the bodies are," Ose said.

In all, 370 troops from the 22nd infantry regiment looked for a dozen people still missing from Shichigahamamachi. The regiment had been searching the area with a far smaller contingent, but tripled the number of troops for the two-day intense search, said Col. Akira Kunitomo, the regimental commander.

Bodies found so many weeks after the disaster are likely to be unrecognizable, black and swollen, Ose said.

"We wouldn't even know if they would be male or female," he said.

The work is personal for the unit. More than half its 900 troops hail from Miyagi prefecture, which was hit hard by the tsunami, and nearly all are from northern Japan. It lost one of its own to the tsunami — a soldier in his 30s who was on break but tried in vain to rush back to camp after the earthquake.

More than 14,300 people have been confirmed dead and nearly 11,900 remain missing. The military's first major sweep for bodies uncovered 339; its second turned up 99 more, Defense Ministry spokesman Norikazu Muratani said.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, bodies turned up along the Indonesian coast for months afterward. However, 37,000 of the 164,000 people who died in Indonesia simply disappeared, their bodies presumably washed out to sea.

Last week, two undersea robots provided by the nonprofit International Rescue Systems Institute conducted five-day searches in waters near three tsunami-hit towns. They found cars, homes and other wreckage, but no bodies, said Mika Murata, an official with the institute.

The Japanese government has come under criticism for its response to the disasters and a subsequent nuclear crisis.

On Monday, Goshi Hosono, an adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan and member of his nuclear crisis management task force, slammed the operator of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., for its handling of the crisis.

The plant was not properly prepared for the tsunami or for the loss of power that followed, he said. And TEPCO delayed the crucial venting of radioactive steam that built up immense pressure and may have contributed to hydrogen explosions that made the crisis even worse, he said. All those issues are being investigated, he said.

"I think TEPCO is used to its routine work as a supplier of electricity, but it was not good at handling something different," he said.

TEPCO announced a roadmap last week to bring the plant into cold shutdown within six to nine months, a crucial step for allowing the tens of thousands evacuated from a 12-mile (20-kilometer) area around the plant to return home.

Hosono said the situation at the plant remained "extremely difficult," with radioactivity high in some areas and the transfer of contaminated water proving very tough. Though work is slower than hoped for, Hosono said he saw no reason it would not be completed along the road map's timetable.

Meanwhile, the government was discussing how much of the compensation for the nuclear crisis it would bear and how much would be paid by TEPCO.

With its liability likely to stretch into the billions, TEPCO announced Monday it would slash executive compensation by 50 percent, cut managers' salaries by 25 percent and low-level employees would get a 20 percent pay cut. It also planned to freeze hiring for next year. The amount saved would total 54 billion yen ($660 million) for the year, the company said.

____

Associated Press writers Shino Yuasa and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

  1. Above: Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  2. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

Photos: Triple tragedy for Japan

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  1. Office workers in Tokyo look at smoke rising over the skyline after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waves pour over a seawall and roar into a seaside village near the mouth of Hei River on March 11 as the tsunami generated by the massive earthquake hits shore. (Mainichi Newspaper via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hotel employees squat around a pillar at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after the powerful earthquake on March 11. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A tsunami wave sweeps away homes in its path in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. One house bursts into flames after the tsunami swept it and many of its neighbors off their foundations in Natori on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shaken evacuees gather in Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial photo shows Sendai Airport being inundated by a tsunami on March 11. Later reports said the first wave hit 26 minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A swirling pattern is evident in this aerial photo of the tsunami as it hit a port in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away while taking pictures at the mouth of the Owatari River during the tsunami at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive in the rush of water by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap around 30 feet high after being swept away for about 100 feet, Kyodo News reports. (Kamaishi Port Office / Kyodo via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Natural gas containers burn in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, on March 11. The massive earthquake triggered many fires, posing additional problems for first responders. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Containers for cargo are strewn about like giant Legos in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People use a floating container to ferry survivors to higher ground in Kesennuma City, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars swept into a jumble by the tsunami are seen in Hitachi City, Ibaraki prefecture, on March 12. (Yomiuri via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A line of residents seeking water snakes across the playground of a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13, two days after the earthquake. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Japanese firefighters rescue tsunami survivors in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Japanese home drifts in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai in this photograph taken on March 13. (Dylan McCord / U.S. Navy via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman cries while sitting on a road in the devastated city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (Asahi Shimbun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An "SOS" signal scrawled on the sports field of a high school beckons potential rescuers on March 13 in the town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    The body of a victim of the twin disaster lays on the stairs of a destroyed house in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa waves to members of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force preparing to rescue him about 9 miles off Fukushima prefecture on March 13. Shinkawa survived by clinging to a piece of roof after the tsunami hit his hometown of Minamisoma. (Japanese Defense Forces via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture on March 13. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sends a plume of smoke skyward on March 14. The blast was believed to have been caused by a buildup of hydrogen inside the reactor building, caused by the partial meltdown of nuclear fuel inside. The plant was crippled after the earthquake cut power to the station and tsunami waves knocked out backup generators. (NTV / FCT) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A 1-year-old boy is re-checked for radiation exposure after being decontaminated in Nihonmatsu, Fukushiima prefecture, on March 14. (Toru Nakata / Asahi Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Officers examine a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on March 14. The warplane was swept by the tsunami into a building at Matsushima base in Higashimatsushima, Iwate prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Japanese rescue team members carry the body of a man out of the village of Saito on March 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman survivor is reunited with her relatives at a shelter in Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, on March 15. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A bicyclist wheels across a hellish landscape in what was the city of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tsunami survivors cook on an open fire in front of their damaged house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vehicle headlamps illuminate a devastated section of Yamada town, Iwate prefecture, on March 16. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Evacuees carry bowls of pork soup from a soup kitchen to a makeshift shelter in Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 16. (Tsuyoshi Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Refugees, including 53 people who were rescued from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, on March 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Members of Japan Self-Defense Force pray over the body of a tsunami victim in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, on March 20. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Tomoko Yagi looks at two firetrucks that were tossed around like toys in the tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on March 20. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Survivors relay boxes of relief supplies arriving at their evacuation center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on March 21. (Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A boat juts out from the top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, on March 22. (Hiroto Nomoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Manami Kon, 4, uses the Japanese "hiragana" characters she just learned to write a letter to her missing mother in the devastated city of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, on March 22 . "Dear Mommy. I hope you're alive. Are you OK?" read the letter, which took about an hour to write. Also missing were the little girl's father and sister. (Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers collect data in the control room for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 23. (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone shows the damaged units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on March 24. (Air Photo Service via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Two residents exchange words as they are reunited two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 25. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A Japanese funeral parlor worker shovels dirt onto the coffins of victims of the earthquake and tsunami at a mass funeral in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 26. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A lone pine tree stands in a devastated area iof Rikuzentakaka, Iwate prefecture, on March 27. It was the only one among tens of thousands of other pine trees forming "Takata Matsubara," or Takata seaside pine forest, standing after the March 11 tsunami washed away all the others, local media said. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A woman whose house was washed away loses control of her emotions on March 29 as she talks about the disaster that befell her hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Kuni Takahashi) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, left, talk with evacuees at Tokyo Budoh-kan evacuation center on March 30. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., (TEPCO), including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, center, Vice President Takashi Fujimoto, second from left, bow before a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo on March 30. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A man rides a bicycle in between the ships that were washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami, on March 30, in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Eugene Hoshiko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. An elderly woman waves to her grandchildren in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on April 3, as authorities began a mass evacuation of approximately 1,100 homeless survivors to shelters elsewhere. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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  2. Editor's note:
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  3. Editor's note:
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