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Hundreds of Safes, Cash Wash Up on Japan Shores

The garage in Ofunato police headquarters is stashed with safes, cash and money bags that where washed ashore in the Japan shores after the Tsunami.

These safes could contain someone’s life savings in it. Since the Japanese prefer keeping their money at their home then in banks.

Safes are washing up along the tsunami-battered coast, and police are trying to find their owners — a unique problem in a country where many people, especially the elderly, still stash their cash at home. By one estimate, some $350 billion worth of yen doesn’t circulate.

There’s even a term for this hidden money in Japanese: “tansu yokin.” Or literally, “wardrobe savings.”

One month after the March 11 tsunami devastated Ofunato and other nearby cities, police departments already stretched thin now face the growing task of managing lost wealth.

“At first we put all the safes in the station,” said Noriyoshi Goto, head of the Ofunato Police Department’s financial affairs department, which is in charge of lost-and-found items. “But then there were too many, so we had to move them.”

Identifying the owners of lost safes is hard enough. But it’s nearly impossible when it comes to wads of cash being found in envelopes, unmarked bags, boxes and furniture.

“It’s just how people have operated their entire lives,” he said. “When they need money, they’d rather have their money close by. It’s not necessarily that they don’t trust banks. But there are a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable using ATMs, especially the elderly.”

A 2008 report by Japan’s central bank estimated that more than a third of 10,000-yen ($118) bank notes issued don’t actually circulate. That amounts to some 30 trillion yen, or $354 billion at current exchange rates, ferreted away.

Only 10 to 15 percent of valuables found in the tsunami rubble have been returned so far, officials in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures said last week.

Instead of waiting, police in Iwate are considering a more proactive measure. Individual stations will likely start opening safes to try to identify their owners, said Kiyoto Fujii, a spokesman for the prefectural police.

And the safes are likely to keep on coming.

“There’s probably a lot of valuables still left in the rubble, including safes,” Fujii said. “We are expecting and preparing for that.”

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