Japan’s Surging Death Toll Complicated by Missing Persons

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Residents are evacuated from the Fukushima nuclear facilities damaged in Friday's massive earthquake

Wally Santana / AP

As the death toll from Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami last Friday continues to rise, thousands of people remain unaccounted for, making it likely that large gaps exist between official and unofficial counts.

Japan’s National Police Agency reported Friday that 6,406 are confirmed dead, and 10,259 missing. The agency did not further break down those figures by region.

It is standard practice in Japan not to declare someone missing unless their absence has been reported. But in cases where entire neighborhoods and families were swept away, the unaccounted for may not have anyone left to speak for them. They will have to speak for themselves if and when the waves wash their bodies back to shore.

Officials are also hesitant to inflate their count of missing persons since many avenues of communication are down, preventing people who may be okay from contacting others to let them know. Tellingly, the final death count from the Kobe earthquake—upwards of 6,400—was not recorded until 2005, ten years after it hit.

(More on TIME.comSee how to help earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan)

While Japan has 47 prefectures, the three northeastern prefectures surrounding the epicenter were the most immediately affected.

Iwate Prefecture: As reported in the Wall Street Journal, in places like Otsuchi, entire neighborhoods disappeared. The official death toll there stands at 221, with seven missing, and 5,000 of the town’s residents were evacuated. That means that more than 9,000 people remain uncounted. Otsuchi’s Mayor Koki Kato, among others, has not been seen since Friday. In nearby Rikuzentakata, another 11,500 are unaccounted for. According to a post on Twitter, the Iwate death toll stood at 531 on Monday. It’s not clear how much that figure has climbed in recent days; no updated official death toll is currently available.

Miyagi Prefecture: The Miyagi prefecture, which is closest to the quake’s epicenter, is now one of Japan’s most devastated regions. In Miyagi alone, its mayor and local police chief estimated on Wednesday, the death toll could be as high as 10,000. That’s not taking into account other regions surrounding the coast. In the town of Onagawa, 106 residents are officially dead and 125 missing. About half, or 5,000, of the town’s denizens may ultimately be counted as lost. Nearby in Minamisanriku, 8,500 people are gone.

Fukushima Prefecture: While much attention has been focused on Fukushima due to the nuclear threat posed by its stricken power plant, the death toll there remains unclear. What is certain, though, is that more than 6,200 residents have fled the prefecture in the face of radiation leaks. Reports on the ground from Monday found 401 people dead. The situation is similar to the one in Iwate, where there are still large informational holes.

The upshot is that despite the official counts, many expect that the death toll from the disasters will be much, much higher. Chiba University professor Ken Joseph told Britain’s Evening Standard that he thinks it will be “closer to 100,000 than 10,000.”

(More on TIME.com: See TIME’s complete coverage of the crisis in Japan.)

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