Japan asks B.C. for help to identify debris

Post earthquake and tsunami, personal items may wash up on Canada’s west coast

Over the past few months, debris from Japan has been washing up on the shores near Tofino, B.C., sparking debate over whether the bottles, planks of wood and other items constitute regular ocean garbage or were swept out to sea amid last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami. But as the country slowly rebuilds from the disaster, which left thousands dead and missing, Japanese officials aren’t taking any chances, and have reached out to residents along Canada’s West Coast to keep an eye out for personal items that may wash ashore.

Japan’s consul-general Hideki Ito recently invited Bill Irving, mayor of Ucluelet, and Tofino Mayor Perry Schmunk to discuss what can be done if more sensitive items show up on the region’s beaches. “There’s a very real possibility that we’ll have some stuff come ashore here,” says Schmunk. “His message to us was that if we see something that has some personal connection to somebody back in Japan, they will make every effort to get it back to their people.”

It’s not clear yet exactly how the process of returning personal effects to Japan will work. Schmunk says there will be questions of identification, storage and transportation that need to be worked out. For its part, the province has agreed to establish a task force to deal with the tsunami debris, the bulk of which is expected to begin arriving in 2013.

Schmunk says that in his talks with the Japanese, it became clear they see the return of any personal items as key to the long healing process the country has undertaken. “It’s not just about ad hoc litter that made it into the water,” says Schmunk. “[The consul-general] stressed that, all things considered, Japan is recovering quite quickly, but the emotional scars are still deep, and the connection to this material is of great importance to them.”

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