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By Yoko Kubota

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan (Reuters) - Japanese police painstakingly search the river and shoreline for bodies of the missing a year after the huge earthquake and tsunami swept away large areas of the fishing town of Rikuzentakata.

Once renowned for a fine beach and seaside pine thicket nestled beneath mountains, the town is now synonymous with the destruction and widespread death wrought by the triple disaster.

What had been the town centre is mostly abandoned and dotted with piles of brown rubble and a ruined town hall. A single pine overlooking a becalmed sea is all that remains of the thicket.

The 16-metre (50-foot) wall of water that swallowed the city centre took the lives of 1,555 of its 24,240 residents. A total of 288 are still listed as missing in the town, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Tokyo.

Police and the coast guard have for months been sending divers into the sea and draining rice paddies in the hope of finding bodies. Of late, they have responded to requests to search specific areas from families seeking closure.

"If we work hard, the deceased's spirits will hear our call. We are keeping our eyes wide open and looking carefully," said Kaname Endo, an officer from a destroyed seaside police station that lost five of its 12 staff.

On Friday, about 20 uniformed officers in gumboots and orange life vests, carrying shovels and buckets, combed muddy gutters near the port -- one of the few areas still to be searched. An excavator removed concrete slabs and swept mud out of a particularly deep gutter.

The morning search produces no results and the officers are told again they must be careful while proceeding.

Masahiko Saito, another officer, says search efforts turned up a corpse in the Kesen River in February and body parts in the fishing port. Most discoveries have been only of body parts or bones.

"Bodies might come up by the sea at a spot that was clear before, so we need to search many times," Endo said.

"It's not a matter of these bodies being dirty or smelly. We consider them as something that needs to be treated very carefully so that they can be returned to their family members."

While most of the debris that covered the city centre in the aftermath of the tsunami has been moved to designated locations, the main commercial area remains virtually deserted, dotted only by traffic lights and electricity poles. The sea, once obscured by buildings and houses, can be seen from hundreds of meters away amid the flattened landscape. The only sounds are the roar of building equipment and the chirping of birds.

Most activity now takes place in outlying areas left intact, with residents rehoused in temporary accommodation on higher ground and supermarkets set up in make-shift buildings. Town officials conduct business from temporary quarters away from the seafront.

WRECKED TOWN HALL

At the wrecked town hall, filthy books and furniture remain strewn about and red "X" marks are spraypainted on the walls in areas where searches for bodies have taken place.

A carpet of mud and wires dangling from the ceiling illustrate the force of the waves that rammed the building, sweeping away nearly 70 officials.

Mayor Futoshi Toba, who lost his wife to the tsunami, said the city had yet to start the rebuilding phase.

"We have been working hard to meet our immediate needs up until now. But we have compiled the city's reconstruction plan," he told Reuters from the make-shift town hall.

"From the start of the new fiscal year in April, I think we may be able to start working on rebuilding the city."

But stability, he said, brought greater public demands.

"After March 11, people were happy to be able to drink a sip of water. The next day, they were able to drink more water. Then they could eat a riceball, or have some soup," he said.

"But now, we have come to a halt. It takes time to build public housing since we have to open up space in the mountains and build roads, water pipes and bring power there. "...We have to act quickly and do things that people can see with their own eyes... We need to help those who are truly in trouble, and those who can figure out a way themselves must learn to be independent."

Recovering the bodies of lost family members is an essential step for coming to terms with their death, said Asami Maekawa, a professor of psychology at Tokyo Women's Christian University.

"In the process of mourning and accepting death, it is necessary to face the reality of death, and a very clear example of this is to face the dead body," she said.

"If people try to keep their loved ones' memories in their mind without going through the process of facing the reality, it is not a complete process, leaving their minds vulnerable."

But facing death and rebuilding shattered lives means many thousands struggling with depression and other health issues.

About 40 percent of surveyed residents in Rikuzentakata are suspected of having sleeping disorders. Nearly 6 percent showed signs of serious psychological problems, according to a study led by Kiyomi Sakata, a professor at Iwate Medical University.

In the meantime, the dogged search for bodies goes on.

"Some people said that we should stop searching since it has been a year. But there are bodies that have not been found yet," said police officer Endo. "We will go on until we know for sure that there will be no more."

(Editing by Ron Popeski)

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