Sakuji Funayama watched intently as a giant steel claw tore chunks off the remains of his two-story home, ripped open like a dollhouse by last month's tsunami and washed up onto a pile of debris. Suddenly, he spied something, waved his arms and pointed.
The claw froze and a half dozen construction workers scrambled into the wreckage, emerging a few minutes later with a battered backpack that belonged to Funayama's son, who moved away years ago. He set it off to the side.
The race to clear the destruction from Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami so rebuilding can begin is a delicate process, with workers taking precautions not to damage bodies buried in the rubble. But the work has been further slowed by clearance crews who feel duty bound to help survivors search the rubble for lost possessions, precious mementos of their former lives.
"Everyone has been very nice. They all stop whenever we see anything," the 77-year-old Funayama said.
With more than 10,000 people missing or suspected dead across Japan's eastern coast, demolition crews and teams of soldiers are trying to search through and clear the rotting debris summer's heat and humidity begin in about a month.
More than 90,000 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged in the disasters, according to police. Entire towns were smashed into miles of wreckage, and the government estimates that 250 square miles (650 sq. kilometers) were flooded along the coast.
The damaged neighborhoods are a hazardous maze of tottering buildings, twisted metal and puddles of murky liquid. Heavy wrecking equipment is in constant use and large dump trucks race along the roads.
Officials said it could take a year to remove the debris, which will be moved to a site for processing and disposal, a project that will take an additional two years.
Cleanup crews have tried to respect the feelings of the survivors by telling them when they are beginning work on their neighborhood, said a disaster management official from the Miyagi prefecture, who only gave his last name, Osamune.
"We try to notify residents whenever we can so that they can oversee the operation," Osamune said. "They can stop the crew whenever they spot anything valuable, so that people can recover things before everything gets wiped out."
Crews also try to pick up photos and valuables they find and send them to a lost-and-found center for survivors to sift through, he said.
In Kesennuma, the tsunami lifted houses and buildings from their foundations and piled them in great heaps against inland hills. Six weeks after the disaster, teams a dozen strong work alongside cranes with claw attachments to comb through the vast expanses of rubble.
Emergency worker Katsuya Sasaki said his main concern is finding bodies; he's been told about 1,200 people are still unaccounted for here. When a body is found, work stops completely and special teams of troops or firefighters are called in to carefully extract, cover and carry it to a waiting vehicle.
"If we brought in some heavier machinery and just cleared the whole thing out, we'd be done by now," said Sasaki, whose team has been working on the same plot for over a week, pausing throughout the day for residents to claim belongings from the wreckage. "But we're all human beings, even if this does slow things down."
Eager to clear the wreckage but unsure of the legal implications, local governments in the disaster zone sought advice from the central government on how to proceed. Last month, the Environmental Ministry issued guidelines saying destroyed or badly damaged homes can be cleared without their owners' permission.
But officials in hard-hit areas say that respect for those who have lost their homes come first, especially when they are looking for the bodies of lost loved ones. All along the coast, it is common to see residents wandering their former streets with masks and long sticks, poking among the debris that has yet to be carted away.
Hiromitsu Iwama, an official in the local roads and parks department overseeing debris removal in coastal Natori, saw nothing wrong with this.
"There are still about 1,000 bodies that haven't been found yet here. It's a kind of an unspoken decency," he said.
Associated Press reporter Koji Ueda in Kesennuma and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.