The death toll from devastating landslides in western Japan rose to 46 on Saturday, as rescuers worked around the clock to comb through destroyed houses searching for survivors.
Local police said they could not confirm the whereabouts of 41 local residents in the disaster-hit area of Hiroshima, where heavy rain early on Wednesday triggered landslides that swallowed dozens of homes.
The rain had stopped by Saturday morning, but nearly 3,000 rescuers, soldiers and police officers remained wary, with meteorologists predicting another heavy downpour by evening.
The city government was upholding evacuation orders for more than 4,500 local residents amid fears of fresh landslides.
Emergency officials found six more bodies Saturday, bringing the toll to 46, a Hiroshima police spokesman said.
Confusion has reigned over the number of people potentially trapped in the debris as authorities continue to receive new reports of missing people, while some individuals believed lost were found alive at emergency shelters.
Local officials fear even more people could be unaccounted for, buried by the mud and not yet reported missing.
Firefighters and soldiers removed debris by hand where they could, cautious of using heavy machinery amid hopes of finding survivors.
Rain has complicated the search efforts in the area, where the hillsides are made of decomposed granite – a coarse sand-like material that is used for driveways and paths, and which occurs naturally in this part of Japan.
For hours on Friday afternoon, rescue workers had to suspend their operations when the shape of the mountains appeared to change, heralding a possible new landslip.
The death toll from landslides in western Japan could more than double, police said on Friday.
At least 40 people were killed and dozens of homes destroyed when mountainsides gave way on the outskirts of Hiroshima before dawn on Wednesday, sending tonnes of mud, rocks and trees crashing into suburban communities.
"Operations in [two districts] were halted as mountains there were becoming misshapen," a Hiroshima police spokesman said. Rescuers were "evacuated as there is a risk of a fresh landslide". However, operations resumed later.
"We will continue our search all night long as we are really fighting against time," said Hideyuki Okuda, an official with the city's disaster management.
The suspension order came two days after a rescuer was killed, along with a three-year-old boy he was trying to carry to safety, when he was buried by a secondary landslide.
A body identified on Friday was Kota Torigoe, 17, ending the hopes of members of his school baseball team, who had held a vigil near his house.
Officials said better coordination between emergency services and local authorities meant they were now aware of 47 people who had not been heard of since the disaster, up from single figures only two days before.
Hiroshima's mayor, Kazumi Matsui, noted that the crucial 72-hour window in which experts believe survivors are most likely to be found was closing.
"I want [rescuers] to save the lives of many missing people within these hours," the mayor told an emergency press conference in the city, Jiji Press news agency reported.
Matsui dismissed claims that evacuation advisories were too slow. "We were cautious in making decisions as an easy issuance would hurt the confidence in advisories," he said.