Vincent Yu / AP
Japan Self-Defense Force personnel stand near some safes they retrieved from houses destroyed by the tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan in a photo taken on April 7, 2011.
By Arata Yamamoto, NBC News Producer
TOYKO – If disaster struck, and millions of dollars in cash turned up, do you think it would be returned to its rightful owners?
In Japan, it was.
During the four months since the giant tsunami struck Japan’s northern coast, more than 5,700 safes containing approximately $30 million has been recovered from the three hardest hit prefectures, Japan’s National Police Agency recently announced.
Remarkably – since residents of the tsunami zone have scattered across the country and even the world – 96 percent, or nearly $29.6 million in cash, has already been returned to its rightful owners, or if authorities feared the owner had died in the disaster, their closest relative.
Detective job to find rightful owners
The majority of the safes recovered in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima were collected by Japan’s Self Defense Force, police, and volunteers while combing through destroyed homes and buildings and clearing debris left behind by the devastating wave; some individuals also came forward with lost valuables.
Masao Sasaki, with the Iwate prefectural police, said that determining who the money belonged to and then actually finding them proved to be a great challenge and often involved excruciating detective work.
“In some cases, entire communities were completely washed away. Even if we had information on the address of the owner, there would be no building left, landlines were destroyed,” Sasaki explained. “So we went around to the various evacuation centers and started checking through the rosters.”
In Iwate prefecture alone, where more than 23,000 structures along the coast were destroyed, 2,400 safes containing a total amount of $10 million was collected. Incredibly, 91 percent of it has already been returned.
Considering that up until June there were more than 330 evacuation centers in Iwate, and people were constantly moving to new locations, it was no small feat to return that much money.
Aly Song / Reuters
A survivor walks through debris caused by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, in this March 18, 2011 file photo.
“You can just imagine the difficult work involved in tracking down the owners,” Sasaki said. “In some cases where the owner was thought to have perished, we had to find the closest kin who could have been anywhere inside or outside Iwate.
It’s not unusual for Japanese, especially the elderly, to keep cash at home. In particular, fishermen, who made up a large portion of the coastal population, traditionally preferred cash transactions and often even paid salaries in cash.
Thankfully, many of the safes also held bank books, certificates of land rights, name chops (traditional stamps used in lieu of signatures on personal documents) or some other form of identification. But because they were drenched in mud and water, each item often had to be carefully cleaned and dried, at times using a shirt iron in order to extract useful clues.
“It was important to be able to return these items properly cleaned, but our first and utmost priority was to find the owners and return their belongings as quickly as possible,” said Sasaki.
Asked how they were able to return 91 percent of the lost valuables, Sasaki said it was simply the laborious work and perseverance of the prefecture’s officers.
Venturing into the nuke zone
It was a tougher task in Fukushima prefecture, where extra precaution was required to reach some of the areas affected by the nuclear accident.
When their officers entered the 12-mile-radius exclusion zone, they had to put on hazmat suits and equip themselves with survey meters so they could check the radiation levels.
“It might have taken a little longer in Fukushima,” said Yoshiyasu Sato of the local prefectural police headquarters. “We had to start from the outer perimeter of the exclusion zone and slowly work our way in.”
But according to Sato, even though it took four months, the police have pretty much completed their task: they have already returned 96 percent of the $7.2 million found in some 900 safe boxes.
And in the Miyagi prefecture they had an even greater rate of return. More than 2,400 safes were collected that contained approximately $13.5 million –amazingly 99 percent of that has been returned to its owners or closest kin.
In Iwate, as they get closer to completing the task of clearing away the rubble, the number of safes and other belongings recovered has dropped. But, Sasaki said, “the collection is still not completely zero, the numbers have come down, but items are being turned in sporadically.”
In total, if you included the money retrieved from lost wallets and purses, $48.3 million worth of cash was collected from the disaster zone. Out of that total amount, 85 percent has found its way to its rightful owners.
While the sheer amount of cash collected and returned is astounding, it is also another reminder of the scope of the damage brought by the March earthquake and tsunami which claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people and completely wiped out at least 112,000 homes and buildings.