By AKIKO FUJITA (@akikofujita)
TOKYO Aug. 17, 2011
The earthquake and tsunami that walloped Japan left much of its coastline ravaged, but left one thing intact: the Japanese reputation for honesty.
In the five months since the disaster struck, people have turned in thousands of wallets found in the debris, containing $48 million in cash.
More than 5,700 safes that washed ashore along Japan’s tsunami-ravaged coast have also been hauled to police centers by volunteers and search and rescue crews. Inside those safes officials found $30 million in cash. One safe alone, contained the equivalent of $1 million.
The National Police Agency says nearly all the valuables found in the three hardest hit prefectures, have been returned to their owners.
“In most cases, the keyholes on these safes were filled with mud,” said Koetsu Saiki with the Miyagi Prefectural Police. “We had to start by cutting apart the metal doors with grinders and other tools.”
Determining who the safes belonged to, proved to be the easy part. Saiki says most kept bankbooks or land rights documents inside the boxes, containing their names and address. Tracking the owners down, was much more challenging.
Total of $78 Million Was Returned to Owners in Wake of Japan Catastrophe
“The fact that these safes were washed away, meant the homes were washed away too,” he said. “We had to first determine if the owners were alive, then find where they had evacuated to.”
Saiki says Miyagi police fanned out across the region, searching for names of residents posted at evacuation centers, digging through missing person reports at town halls, sorting through change of address forms at the post office, to see if the owner had moved away. When they couldn’t find the documents, police called listed cell phone numbers, met with mayors or village leaders to see if they recognized the names.
The number of safes continued to increase as the clearing of tsunami debris led to more discoveries. Police stations struggling to find space for them housed the valuables in parking garages and meeting rooms.
Saiki says 20 percent of the 2,450 safes found in Miyagi turned out to be empty. But, the remaining 250 boxes contained much more than cash. Some included bars of gold, antiques, even crafted boxes containing a child’s umbilical cord, a common memento of child birth. Police had to delicately comb through the keepsakes, since many of the items were damaged, after being soaked in seawater and mud for days or weeks.
The stashing of cash in safes isn’t a unique problem in Japan, where many people prefer to keep their money at home, but Saiki says the number of boxes is especially high in the coastal region where fishermen make up a large part of the population. Fisheries companies prefer cash transactions, and keep employee salaries in safes, he said.
The number of lost items recovered has declined with every month, but Saiki says his department continues to receive a handful of safes a week.