Shohei Kuchikata died at the age of 97 in March knowing that the remains of his older brother, Sei, had at last come home.
He had spent most of his life waiting for them.
Sei Kuchikata was one of nearly 190,000 Okinawans and Japanese soldiers killed in the Battle of Okinawa, which officially ended 67 years ago on June 23.
His remains were only identified after being uncovered at the foot of a large tree standing on a slope in the Makabi district of the prefectural capital Naha in November 2009 by a local group collecting the remains of the war dead.
A fountain pen discovered near the waist of the skeleton was engraved with Sei’s name, and a government DNA test confirmed his identity by comparing genetic information with samples from Shohei.
Shohei’s 64-year-old son, Narumi Kuchikata, who lives in Isumi, Chiba Prefecture, recalls his father saying: “My brother is finally coming back to us.”
Narumi still has a postcard sent by Sei to his family from Okinawa, inquiring about their well-being, and speculates that it was probably written with the excavated pen.
“I wonder what he was feeling back then,” he says.
On June 21, he and four other members of the family were in Okinawa to pray at the site where the remains were found.
Bones are turning up all the time on Okinawa. According to Okinawan officials, about 100 sets of remains of people killed in the fighting are uncovered each year. In Makabi alone, 172 sets of remains were dug up in two months from October 2009.
However, many families do not get the peace of mind given to the Kuchikatas. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has conducted around 1,550 DNA analysis in connection with efforts to determine the identity of the war dead since fiscal 2003, but only 28 tests have dealt with the dead in Okinawa Prefecture. Sei’s is the only case in which the identity of remains in Okinawa has been established using the tests.
Ministry officials say that getting good DNA samples is difficult because of the hot and humid climate in the prefecture and will only conduct a DNA analysis if there is other evidence helping with identification, such as belongings or a list of those buried where the remains have been excavated.
Takamatsu Gushiken, the head of the local group that found Sei’s remains, wants the government to expand its effort, saying that it should at least fund DNA tests for families claiming remains as their kin. Officials say the DNA analysis is not definitive and can merely act as a support to identification by other means, and are also reluctant to collect and store personal information on bereaved families.
That leaves people like Seikichi Arakaki, 77, in no man’s land. In Yaese, a town in the south of Okinawa’s main island, five families stepped forward after media reports in May said the remains of a mother and two children had been excavated. Arakaki, who lives in the Shuriishimine district of Naha, was among them.
He returned from evacuation after the war to find that his neighborhood had been turned into bare hill of limestone. His mother, grandmother and five siblings were gone.
With no memento identifying the remains in Yaese, Arakaki does not know where to pray for his dead family.
“It would be a relief if their remains are discovered,” he said. “I want to pursue the possibility even if chances are slim.”
(This article was written by Kenta Nozaki and Go Katono.)
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