February 27, 2020

Upon the Establishment of the Specified Non-profit Organization “The Nationwide Sokumon Promotion Association”

Mitsuhiko Inaba
Chief Director
(S.J.D., Academic advisor Tokoha University)

It has been already nine years since the Great East Japan Earthquake brought unprecedented damage to the country. Media reports have focused on the ongoing reconstruction efforts of the affected areas. However, more than 2,500 people are still reported missing. As I extend my appreciation to the members of the police and fire departments, as well as the members of the Japan Coast Guard, who have tried so hard to find the missing persons, I feel helpless thinking about the feelings of the bereaved families.

At the same time, it gives me pain to hear that 60 bodies have yet to return to their loved ones, as the victims have not been identified.

I hear that the corpses were in such bad conditions due to the disaster caused by the earthquake and tsunami and damage caused by the fire that the police autopsy and identification efforts of victims were extremely difficult. There were even reports that some corpses had been mixed up.

The mixing up of victims would not have occurred had the identification been conducted in a scientific manner. Prior to applying scientific methods, the identification must have been conducted immediately after the disaster, based on their physical characteristics and clothes described by the persons concerned. In the midst of chaos when numerous bodies were found, they gave priority to staying close to the feelings of the victims’ families, who wanted to be reunited with their loved ones early. I assume that may have led to the misidentification of corpses.

Incidentally, in regard to the scientific methods for identification, a former forensic expert commented on the three methods: namely, fingerprints, DNA, and dental impressions. All three methods come with obstacles and do not have the capability of covering every single citizen in Japan. The cross-checking of fingerprints is limited to those with criminal records in the police database. In the case of DNA, we normally need a member of the person’s next of kin, whose DNA can be compared. For analysis using dental impressions, records must be provided by dentists. He therefore proposed using footprints for personal identification. Although they are still considered personal information, he believes it is least likely that they infringe on one’s privacy.

Footprints consist of skin grooves seen on the sole of one’s foot. As in the case of fingerprints, they differ from person to person and never change throughout our lifetime. If we have them lifted once and stored, they can be used for personal identification in case of contingency, such as disasters and accidents. He further explained that unlike fingerprints, there was currently no field where fingerprints are being utilized. He therefore believes that they can never be used for wrong purposes and that they are also difficult to forge. While we cannot force this idea on each one, I fully support his suggestion that the authorities should lift footprints from those who request and store them.

Furthermore, while biometric identification, such as vein, iris or facial recognition, cannot be used for identifying corpses, there are specimens being kept at each body. For example, in the case of hand prints, there are specimens being kept at the immigration authorities, bank ATMs, and other facilities for security reasons. In the case of DNA, the data is stored at medial facilities and the Red Cross. As they are strictly controlled in accordance with the objectives, I hear that there are tight restrictions when it comes to using them effectively. I believe that there is now a need for enacting a legislation to enable us to use footprint specimens for identification only at a time of an emergency.

If major earthquakes are to directly hit the Tokyo metropolitan area or the region along the Nankai Trough in western Japan, it is expected that there will be a lot of casualties. There is a lot of movement of persons during the daytime, which makes it impossible for us to relate the corpses to the affected areas. Also, we cannot predict if we can always find one’s identification documents and accessories, such as rings and pierces, in the affected areas, which may lead to the identification of corpses.

Widespread “lootings”, which we witnessed in the aftermaths of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Kumamoto Earthquake, are feared. We do not have time to lament over the loss of conscience of the Japanese people. I sincerely hope that the police will be able to conduct autopsy and identify the bodies of the victims in a reliable and timely manner while responding to the feelings of the bereaved families and that their efforts will be put in place effectively to maintain the safety and facilitate the reconstruction of affected areas.