Family walks past rubble after the earthquake and tsunami in Minamisanriku City
Family walks past rubble after the earthquake and tsunami in Minamisanriku City Reuters

Up to 80,000 Japanese self-defense forces, firefighters and police officers have mobilized in the quake-ridden regions of northern Japan to search for survivors and locate the deceased, as temperatures drop to freezing levels.

The National Police Agency (NPA) confirmed 4,255 deaths in twelve prefectures, while 8,194 people remained unaccounted for in six prefectures as of 8 p.m. (local Japan time).

However, the death toll will keep climbing as rescue forces discover more bodies killed by the double-punch of the devastating earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. As the waters recede, more and more corpses pile up.

We could rescue more than 26,000 people, but the number of those who died or were unaccounted for has exceeded 10,000, said Prime Minister Naoto Kan to an emergency task force on Wednesday afternoon.

Another problem is that it has become difficult to identify the dead as understaffed state medical officials cannot quickly perform autopsies on site.

As a result, NPA has ordered police to quicken the pace of autopsies by simply taking photographs of the dead. The police in Miyagi prefecture, perhaps the worst-hit region, may recruit volunteers to contact next of kin while its officers can concentrate on postmortem examinations.

In an extraordinary development, police in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, have begun to announce the names, ages and addresses of corpses based simply on belongings recovered with their bodies.

The local government has also asked the Japan Prefabricated Construction Suppliers & Manufacturers Association to build 32,800 temporary housing units in various northeastern prefectures. According to media reports, about 430,000 homeless people in the area are currently staying in more than 2,400 shelters, overwhelming their capacity.

Meanwhile, thousands of people from Fukushima prefect, the locale of the damages nuclear power plants leaking radiation, have evacuated to neighboring regions Niigata, Yamagata and Miyagi.