By Mari Yamaguchi
TOKYO (AP) — Searchers found a man’s body April 20 in a landslide-hit area in southern Japan, bringing the death toll to 48 from two powerful earthquakes last week. Three people remain missing.
The U.S military announced it was preparing to join relief efforts and Toyota suspended nearly all of its vehicle production in Japan.
Thousands of rescue workers fanned out in often mountainous terrain to search for the missing. Rescue helicopters could be seen going into and out of the area, much of which has been cut off by landslides and road and bridge damage.
More than 100,000 people are homeless or have fled their homes as aftershocks continue to shake the area. Many are living in cramped conditions in shelters or even their cars, with limited food and water.
U.S. Forces, Japan said, was getting ready to provide aerial support for Japan’s relief efforts. The United States has major Air Force, Navy, and Marine bases in Japan, and stations about 50,000 troops in the country.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “We are extremely grateful, and we would like to coordinate quickly and have the emergency relief be transported in as soon as possible.”
In all, 14 victims have been found in Minamiaso.
Minamiaso is in a mountainous area southwest of the 5,223-foot-high Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. Aerial footage from Japanese TV showed teams of rescuers going through small clusters of destroyed buildings.
The hardest-hit town appears to be Mashiko, where 20 people died. Kumamoto prefecture has tallied 1,453 homes destroyed so far, of which 1,026 are in Mashiko.
Kumamoto prefecture said that another 11 have died from illnesses believed to be related to the physical stress of evacuation.
More than 1,000 buildings were damaged in the two earthquakes, including at least 90 that were destroyed.
Many residents were still recovering from the shock of the destruction, while struggling to bring their lives, and spirit, together.
“Without water and electricity, we can’t do anything. Without the TV on, we can’t even get information about disaster relief operations,” said Megumi Kudo, 51, standing in a line for water outside a community center in Aso city. “We can’t take a bath, not even a shower.”
Kudo came with his wife and a 12-year-old daughter, carrying several empty gallon-size plastic containers to get water while his 80-year-old mother waited at home. “It’s better to be prepared than sorry, as we learned the hard way,” he said.
His house survived, despite major roof damage, but like many, the family is sleeping in their cars outside.
A few blocks away, 75-year-old Tokio Miyamoto said he’s too afraid to sleep alone in his house, so he lugs his futon bedding every evening to an evacuation center. “It’s a hassle, but it’s too scary to be alone,” he said.
Miyamoto said there was not sufficient food at the evacuation center, only a couple of rice balls each time.
A 1,700-year-old Shinto shrine in southern Japan remains a place of moral support, despite being heavily damaged itself. Aso Shrine’s iconic wooden gate lies mangled on the ground. The main prayer hall is tilted, and other buildings with sweeping tiled roofs have pancaked to the earth.
“I was so shocked,” the shrine’s senior priest, Hiroaki Uchimura, said. Uchimura had rushed from his house behind the shrine to check on the damage after the April 16 earthquake. “I still don’t know what to do,” he said.
Since the quake, people who live nearby have come to pray, make donations, and, perhaps most important, collect the spring water that pours out from bamboo pipes on the shrine compound.
Daiji Matsunaga, an 80-year-old rice farmer, came with a pair of large plastic containers to fill with water he considers sacred.
“This is holy water,” he said. “So I will only use this to cook rice and make green tea. To wash my face or wipe my body, I can use river water.”
Aso Shrine, designated by the government as one of Japan’s important cultural assets, is a popular tourist spot near Mount Aso.
Uchimura didn’t hear the giant gate collapse after the quake struck, because furniture was rattling and dishes were smashing on the floor of his home. As he approached the shrine, he saw that it wasn’t the familiar shape that he knew. “It’s so unfortunate that this shrine ended up this way when the people need it the most,” he said.
Toyota Motor Corp. shut down most of its vehicle production in Japan because of parts shortages stemming from the earthquakes.
The shutdown began April 18 at a factory in Kyushu and progressed to other plants in Japan through Friday. In a statement, Toyota said 18 assembly lines will resume production between April 25 and April 28. That includes lines at the Tsutsumi plant, where Toyota makes the Prius hybrid cars.
Eight assembly lines will remain shut next week, including two lines at the Miyata plant in southern Japan, which is close to the epicenter of the earthquakes that struck Kumamoto prefecture.
Other companies, including Sony, have announced stoppages of some of their factories in Kyushu.