As the waters receded from the tsunami triggered by the Japan earthquake, hundreds of metal safes washed away from ruined houses were found in the debris. Japanese police have been storing the safes and accepting cash found in bags, boxes and furniture turned in by honest citizens. Some of the loot may never be returned to its rightful owners in a society known for stashing cash at home instead of relying on banks.
Metal safes intact among the devastation
A month after the Japan earthquake and tsunami, cleanup workers and residents searching through the wreckage of the ravaged northeast coast are finding tens of millions of yen in cash and hundreds of safes. The safes recovered from the devastation are being stored by police. The Associated Press reports that police in the town of Ofunato have put hundreds of safes in the parking garage, displacing the department’s cars. Authorities believe there may be more than 25,000 tsunami deaths. It is expected that many safes and parcels of cash are likely to go unclaimed. Japanese law requires police to store unclaimed valuables for 90 days. If no individual comes forward with proof of ownership, the finder will be allowed to claim the cash. If no one claims the money, the government takes it.
Japanese hoard billions in cash
The Japanese government could probably use the money. Authorities estimate the cost of the earthquake and tsunami could approach $309 billion. The estimate includes losses due to wiped out homes, buildings and infrastructure, but not the stashes of cash stored at home in safes and other hiding places. In Japan, it has been customary, especially among elderly people uncomfortable with the idea of ATMs, to keep cash at home. According to Japan’s central bank, more than a third of 10,000-yen bills that are printed don’t circulate — about 30 trillion yen — about $354 billion at the current exchange rate. Old habits and convenience have led older Japanese, a growing segment in a rapidly aging population, to stash cash in safes, boxes and furniture. Many years of extremely low interest rates have provided little incentive for savings accounts.
Police may crack unclaimed safes
On Japan’s devastated northwest coast, more than 13,000 tsunami deaths have been confirmed as of April 11 and another 14,377 people are still missing. Recovered safes and cash are expected to continue piling up. For owners of the safes, claiming them could be as simple as opening them. Matching a wad of cash with its rightful owner will be more complicated, if not impossible. In Kesennuma, one of the hardest-hit towns in the tsunami zone, authorities said only 10 to 15 percent of valuables recovered from the wreckage have been returned. As they run out of space for the found safes, authorities may start cracking them to find evidence about their owners before turning them over to the government.