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mark hume

A massive debris field created by the tsunami that devastated Japan last year is slowly edging towards the West Coast, bringing with it a moral question.

How much of the debris is junk, and how much is cultural relics that deserve to be treated with respect?

The first items, what scientists call "high-windage objects," have already begun to arrive, pushed ahead of the main field by ocean winds.

On Middleton Island, in the Gulf of Alaska, David and Yumi Baxter recently found a soccer ball and a volleyball, both of which had Japanese handwriting on them that helped identify the owners.

The soccer ball came from a school in the tsunami zone and belonged to Misaki Murakami, 16, who lost all his possessions in the catastrophe, which struck Japan on March 11, 2011, killing 19,000 people.

The volleyball belonged to Shiori Sato, 19, whose home was washed away.

The two balls were treated with respect by Mr. and Mr. Baxter, who say they are sending them back to the owners, both of whom have been quoted in the Japanese media as being touched that such personal items are being returned.

"I think it's a miracle," said Ms. Sato, while Mr. Murakami thanked the Alaskan couple for taking the time to find him.

When the balls left Japan, they were pushed by a wall of dark water that carried cars, houses, radioactive waste and the bodies of some of its victims.

Most of the debris, an estimated 1.5 million tonnes, is still far at sea.

But separate models run by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Hawaii are predicting the bulk of the material will start arriving on the West Coast next spring.

Items that ride high on the surface, where they are pushed by the winds, are coming well in advance.

Dianna Parker, a spokesperson for NOAA, said in an e-mail that there have been numerous debris sightings, but it is hard to sort out what came from the tsunami and what was already out there floating around.

"We've received many reports of debris, like buoys and consumer plastic, washing up on West Coast and Alaskan shores, but without a unique identifier, it's extremely difficult to determine its source. These types of debris wash up on our shores all the time," she wrote.

The two balls had personal identifiers. A third tsunami item, the derelict fishing vessel Ryou-Un Maru, had a name and vessel number. But that didn't save it from the U.S. Coast Guard, which riddled the ship with machine-gun blasts, sending it to the bottom as a shipping hazard even though a Canadian fishing vessel, the Bernice C, was in the area and had expressed interest in salvaging it.

Towed to port, the ship could have become a memorial to that terrible day when a magnitude-9 megathrust earthquake devastated Japan and swept away so many people.

But it appears nobody thought about that.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster in Japan, police, fire and rescue workers in the northeast region of Tohoku started picking up photographs scattered in the ruins. Nobody told them to do it. They just felt it was the right thing to do. Eventually they had 750,000 images. But nobody knew what to do with them until a group of volunteers known as the Memory Salvage Project stepped forward. Those photographs, now cleaned and restored, are touring the United States as the Exhibit of Photos Swept Away by Tsunami in Japan.

The photos could easily have been treated as garbage and left in the mud. But the rescue workers saw the humanity in them.

Perhaps beachcombers from Alaska to California can keep that in mind over the next few years. The shards of plastic, the shreds of insulation and the pop bottles might be easy enough to regard as nothing more than junk.

But the child's shoe, or the plastic doll, or the wooden comb – what do you do with those?

Maybe items like that, and the next Japanese fishing boat that drifts in out of the fog, can be brought ashore and treated with reverence. Lest we forget.