Japan on Monday launched its biggest search yet for thousands of bodies yet to be recovered more than six weeks after a powerful tsunami wrecked the country’s northeast coast. With much of the area still in tatters and the government's approval rating at an all-time low, the cabinet of Prime Minister Kan faces mounting pressure to perform – or to let someone else take the nation's helm.
The two-day operation, the third of its kind since the March 11 disaster, involves 25,000 troops, assisted by the US Army, and dozens of planes and helicopters. About 50 boats and 100 Navy divers are scouring the seabed up to 12 miles off the coast.
The operation follows last week's five-day search mission that involved underwater US and Japanese robots. It failed to uncover any bodies, but officials were hopeful that the latest attempt would be more successful since water levels have receded. They warned that corpses would be unrecognizable and their age and gender difficult to determine due to decomposition.
The official death toll stands at 14,300, while 11,900 people are still missing. With well over a month having passed since the tsunami, hope is fading that many more bodies will be found. Previous sweeps of the area have uncovered only 438 people.
The tsunami probably swept the missing victims to sea or carried them long distances from their homes or workplaces.
Prime Minister Kan is facing withering criticism for his handling of the triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. Opinion polls show falling public support for the leader, and his Democratic Party of Japan fared miserably in local elections held over the past two weeks.
Most judgment has been focused on his handling of the situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where at least a partial meltdown and radiation leaks have led to a 12-mile-wide evacuation zone and forced at least 80,000 residents out of their homes, with no indication of when they will be able to return.
Potentially damaging issues initially put to one side in the wake of the disaster are now also returning to test Kan. On Monday, he vowed to address Japan’s huge public debt, but conceded that big spending increases would be required to fund the rebuilding effort.
Last week the cabinet approved the first of what could be several emergency budgets to fund post-tsunami reconstruction, some of which will likely involve extra borrowing. The first budget is expected to be enacted next month.
Speculation is mounting that the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party is preparing to submit a no-confidence motion in Kan in the coming months. To succeed, it would require the support of at least 70 parliamentarians from Kan’s own party.
In one recent opinion poll, about 70 percent of voters said they wanted Kan to make way for a new leader. But the prime minister shows little sign of giving way, nor does there appear to be an obvious successor.
"I am absolutely not thinking about abandoning my responsibilities," he told the upper house budget committee Monday, as Japanese troops mobilized their search operation off the northeast coast.