Police Officer Finds Letter from 10 Years ago

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Himeno Sekiguchi talks with Takara, left, while holding Joi on her knees at her home in Shiwa, Iwate Prefecture, on Feb. 10.

This is the fifth and final installment of a series in which Yomiuri Shimbun reporters revisited people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 and who were interviewed by the newspaper at the time.

MORIOKA — Sorting papers at her home, police officer Himeno Sekiguchi, 31, discovered a letter she received 10 years ago. An officer with the Iwate prefectural police, Sekiguchi was taken back into the past as she looked at the message, which had been sent by Prof. Hirotaro Iwase of the forensic medical lab at Chiba University.

“We were overwhelmed as we saw trucks carrying bodies, and bereaved family members breaking down in tears,” wrote Iwase, 53. “But among the male officers, a tall female police officer with a ponytail kept on working in the dark sports gym where there was no electricity. Seeing her gave us courage.”

Iwase had been conducting autopsies in the gym of the now defunct Yonesaki Junior High School in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, which was being used as a makeshift morgue after the disaster. Sekiguchi guided the bereaved family members of victims.

Immediately after the massive earthquake, Sekiguchi ran out of the koban police box beside JR Ofunato Station where she was on duty, and guided residents to evacuation sites. The koban was later washed away by tsunami.

Several days later, she was appointed to guide bereaved family members at the makeshift morgue. She had become a police officer only about a year before, wanting to help people.

The number of bodies brought into the morgue surpassed 300 at its peak, and they were also placed on the stage area in the gym and in classrooms. With not enough coffins available, many bodies were put into bags.

Searching for family members or friends, many people silently looked at the bodies one by one. Sekiguchi opened the bags when people asked to see their faces.

She told herself, “If I let my emotions take over, I won’t make it.” Among the bodies were little children who were barely recognizable. Though Sekiguchi was stunned, she focused completely on her role as a guide.

“It was hard to know what to say to them, as my family members were all safe,” she recalled. To help identify the bodies as soon as possible, Sekiguchi walked around the gym after finishing her work as a guide, creating records describing the belongings and characteristics of the bodies in a readily understandable manner.

A newspaper article showed Sekiguchi interacting with bereaved family members. When Iwase saw it, he knew that the female police officer with a ponytail was Sekiguchi. He wrote to her, and Sekiguchi’s heart was touched. She said she thought, “This person understands my feelings.”

About 1½ months later, she returned to her duty at the koban, patrolling shelters and temporary housing units. She always thought about what she could do.

According to Kanako Ota, 38, an assistant police inspector who was Sekiguchi’s superior at the time: “She was well-liked by residents. They said, ‘We feel relieved when she comes.’”

Sekiguchi was later transferred to a police station in an inland area. She eventually gave birth to two children, and is currently on childcare leave.

She feels happy when her 3-year-old son, Takara, brings her a new diaper for Joi, who was born last October. Sekiguchi said that she now understands the importance of the time when she can be with her family.

She wants to convey how she felt and acted at that time to her sons and junior colleagues. In October this year, Sekiguchi will return to her duties as a police officer.

She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the letter she received 10 years ago has been rediscovered now.

An officer’s heartfelt prayer

Sekiguchi was first interviewed by The Yomiuri Shimbun in the makeshift morgue, 18 days after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

At the time, she guided people who came to the morgue from morning to night every day. When people did not find relatives there and departed for another morgue, she bowed toward their backs as they left to express her condolences. In front of the bodies, she quietly said, “I hope they can be found by their family members as soon as possible,” in an article carried on April 2, 2011.