Human Art

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Hajime Kimura for TIME

Abe with the drawing of a tsunami victim whose face he reconstructed

Humanity is hard to see in what remains of the victims' faces. Some are blackened from fire, with carbonized noses and charcoal gashes where mouths should be. Others that spent months at sea are bloated, the skin as taut and smooth as boiled eggs. Still others were dragged by the tsunami, the force of the wave obliterating features and leaving only the vaguest indications of individuality: half a lip, perhaps, or a single eye socket. Hair appears in paltry tufts or not at all.

It is from horrifying images like these that Shuichi Abe has brought the dead back to life. After more than 30 years as a police forensic artist for Japan's Miyagi prefecture, Abe took on his most challenging case last year when he was handed 200 photographs of unidentified victims from the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Nearly 20,000 Japanese living in the Tohoku region, Japan's rugged northeast, died in the natural disaster. Of those, roughly 2,650 are still missing, either vanished at sea or lost among the anonymous bodies that were hastily numbered and photographed. In many cases, the visages in these postmortem portraits were so destroyed that it has been impossible for family members to identify their loved ones. Inspector Abe's pencil, though, has uncovered the personalities that once animated these ruined faces. "There are lots of people who can draw," says the 63-year-old policeman, "but there are very few who can bring life to a corpse."

Abe's sketches have so far helped identify 22 tsunami victims. Last year, Yuriko Onodera was drinking her morning coffee when she came across Abe's forensic drawings in a local Tohoku newspaper. For more than a year, she had scanned hundreds of postmortem photographs trying to find her missing former colleagues at a fish-processing factory in Kesennuma, a port town that lost around 1,280 residents. All 11 factory employees, including her boss Akira Yoshida and his mother and brother, perished when the tidal wave inundated the two-story building. Having retired two years before, Onodera took responsibility for naming the dead. At a morgue, Onodera recognized her boss's mother by the ring she always wore, since her features had been stripped by the tsunami. But three victims, including company head Yoshida, were still missing.

As her eyes flicked across Abe's sketches in the newspaper, Onodera suddenly saw the factory owner's fleshy face staring out at her, his dignified expression intact. Then she examined the next drawing and saw her ex-colleague Toshihiko Yoshida (no relation to her boss) looking back at her as well. "I don't know how I can thank Mr. Abe," she says. "I felt like I was somehow healed."

Abe's portraits of the dead depend on equal parts CSI-style anatomical expertise and an Hercule Poirot — like psychological intuition. The Tohoku police inspector spends the vast majority of the time staring at the photographs without lifting his pencil. Some days he sketches until 2 in the morning, falls asleep and then wakes up and knows instinctively that the face he constructed isn't quite right. Then he goes back to scrutinizing the photograph. "I want to return an identity to people who are just numbers," he says. "They deserve to have names, addresses and families."

The eldest son of a rural fishmonger, Abe grew up so poor that he could barely indulge in his favorite hobby: drawing. Sometimes his father let him doodle on the margins of the newspapers used to wrap fish. On special occasions, Abe was allowed to use the back of the previous year's calendar to replicate the lines of the woodblock prints he loved. Back then, Japan, especially the storm-battered northeastern coast, was far removed from the gleaming bullet trains and high-precision technology that later distinguished the nation. Today, Tohoku is still a place of deprivation by Japanese standards, populated by retired farmers and fishermen whose offspring have fled to the cities.

Abe's father didn't want his son's life limited to grinding salmon with chilblained hands. So the family decided that Abe would become a policeman — a safe, comfortable existence occupied by the travails of small-town Japan: an occasional suicide, maybe, or a stolen bike or missing pet. After manning a police box for a few years, Abe turned full time to working as a forensic artist in Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku. Abe reconstructed the face of a college kid who ended his life by jumping off a bridge, using an artist's understanding of flesh and muscle to add a chin, cheeks and character to the broken, bloody skull. Abe also proved a skilled wanted-poster artist, interpreting the often unreliable testimony of witnesses. For instance, when someone insisted that a suspect's eyes were so big as to be anatomically impossible, the inspector would add a surprised expression to the criminal's face and create an uncanny likeness.

Although officially retired, Abe teaches police cadets interested in this unconventional field. No one in Miyagi, or even all of Japan, can match his life-restoring alchemy. But Abe's 35-year-old son, also a policeman, now wields his own pencil. One of his tsunami portraits, in fact, led to a positive ID. Life and artistry have a way of carrying on to the next generation.

with reporting by Chie Kobayashi / Sendai