Photos make slow way home in tsunami-hit Japan

OFUNATO, Japan Tue Feb 21, 2012 5:42am EST

1 of 2. Tsunami victim Tokie Sakamoto reacts as she flips through an album of her family photographs, which were washed away by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, after receiving them from volunteer in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, February 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

OFUNATO, Japan (Reuters) - In a large, bright room not far from the ocean that raged through this coastal Japanese city nearly a year ago, a handful of people with magnifying glasses pore over boxes of photographs of friends or loved ones.

The massive March 11 tsunami that levelled buildings and flattened towns along a wide swath of northern Japan, including Ofunato, also took a more subtle toll, with hundreds of thousands of photographs lost to the churning waters.

But now these memories are slowly making their way back to their owners, thanks to the painstaking efforts of a team that cleans them of mud, dirt and oil.

"I got one photo blown up, and I was so thankful for that. I put it in a frame, and it brought tears to my eyes," said 77-year-old resident Yoshiko Jindai, looking through boxes of photographs.

Ofunato has enlisted a team of seven part-time staffers to help sort though the over 350,000 photos that have accumulated after being brought in by police, firefighters, rescue workers and average citizens who were looking through the rubble.

In charge of cleaning and restoring the photos is paper conservator Satoko Kinno, who said her job is the second stage in the marathon of returning the photos to their owners after they are found.

"I try to remember that people found these photos in the midst of rubble, and that I have to take the baton from them. So that's where I get my motivation," Kinno said.

The photos are frozen once found to prevent bacteria and mould from growing on them until they can be properly cleaned and packed for display.

The facility holds the photos in its industrial-sized freezer bins until they can be dealt with. Once cleaned, they are packed into photo albums and taken around to temporary housing complexes in the hopes of finding their owners.

Other people choose to sort through boxes of photos themselves for hours on end, looking for snapshots of their lives thought lost to the forces of nature.

Some laugh and chat as they search, as if at a casual social occasion. Others grab the books and flip through quickly, almost desperately.

But even those who don't find anything are grateful for the chance to sort through albums filled with thousands of photos of children, graduations and even scenery of areas struck by the tsunami, now devastated.

"I have some photos and videos at my home, but it's still very nice of them to do this," said 79-year-old Kimiko Tanaka.

If somebody finds photos that might belong to another person, a member of Kinno's team will make the rounds of temporary housing to take the memories back to them.

Thousands have made their way back to grateful owners, but many thousands more remain unclaimed -- or still frozen.

Kinno vows to continue until the last photo goes home.

"I've really started to realize the depth and meaning that each and every photo has to it, and as such I want to do what I can to return as many photos as I can," she added.

(Editing by Elaine Lies and Jonathan Thatcher)

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