There were more than 2.4 million Japanese killed in World War II who have never been accounted for. Their remains have been left from Siberia to the Solomon Islands and from the deeps of the Pacific Ocean to the border of India. They died in sinking battleships, in banzai charges, and in prison camps. They include soldiers and civilians, the latter primarily during the hand-to-hand fighting that occurred at the end of the war on Okinawa.
Now, over 70 years since the end of the war, the Japanese government is moving forward on plans to repatriate as many of their dead as they are able.
The current session of the Diet is considering legislation that will set a target of bringing 1.3 million war dead home from overseas. The goal is to repatriate that many within nine years. It’s less than half of the missing, but it will still be a major accomplishment.
The plan calls for private organizations approved by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare to study official documents in public records offices to identify likely locations where Japanese war dead remain.
In some cases, Siberia for example, the remains are interred in gravesites near prisoner-of-war camps. In other cases, the remains were left lying on battlefields.
Once the remains are identified, the government will create a DNA database to be cross-checked with surviving relatives. When matched, the remains will be returned to family members.
Recent years have seen the search for missing soldiers become slow and bureaucratic. It was originally an ad hoc effort immediately after the war, performed by friends and loved ones. Eventually, the ministry assumed responsibility for the efforts, leading to the criticisms.
In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, the government revealed a 10-year campaign to recover the dead. After this period, the government will stop searching. There are many remains, the government acknowledges, that can never be recovered. There are shipwrecks in the Pacific that may never be found and there are kamikaze pilots that vaporized when their planes exploded.
“As many as 530,000 men were lost at sea during the war, so it will be virtually impossible to find those victims,” said Usan Kurata, the chairman of Kuentai-USA, a non-profit organization that is based in Kyoto and works with local people at sites around the world to locate and recover victims of the war.
“To date, the recovery effort by the Japanese government and private groups has been overly bureaucratic and slow, but we are hopeful that this new initiative will be significant, not least because this government has stated that recovering the remains of Japan’s missing is its responsibility,” Kurata told DW.com.
Kuentai-USA is one of the largest privately run recovery groups. It has repatriated about 18,000 sets of remains. About 70% of all the victims recovered were found in the last decade.
The group has been to the Philippines, Guam, and Saipan. It is returning to Saipan to excavate a stretch of land where Japanese defenders carried out the last banzai charge of 1945. Hundreds of men died in human wave attacks, along with dozens of U.S. soldiers.
Besides the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, a state visit by the Japanese emperor and empress to the island of Peleliu reignited interest in recovering the missing war dead.
Peleliu is part of Palau and the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater. Approximately 16,000 Japanese died there with some 2,000 U.S. troops.
During their visit in 2015, the emperor and empress paid their respects at memorials erected in honor of the troops from both sides.
“There had been talks about joint recovery operations prior to the visit by the emperor and empress, but that trip did become something of a catalyst for more action,” said Charles Mitchell, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Tokyo.
On Peleliu, many of the Japanese defenders refused to surrender. They were buried in the tunnels they were defending. Many of those tunnels have never been opened.
“We expect to be able to provide local knowledge of exactly where these caves are and where other remains might be, but there will also be a strong commitment to safety when recovery work begins,” Mitchell said. “We need to make sure that it is safe to enter these tunnels before we can start recovering remains.”
Last May, there was a ceremony at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. The cemetery was built in 1959 to be the last resting place for unknown Japanese soldiers. It will be the home for the incoming remains.
At the ceremony, attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Princess Kiko, the remains of 2,498 soldiers from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Russia were interred.