The remains of more than 1 million Japanese soldiers lie in battlefields far from home. There are no markers, no graves and no mourners. Many sites are overgrown with jungle.
Despite lukewarm government efforts in recent years, war veterans, bereaved family members and other volunteers are picking up the pace to retrieve the remains.
After all, 67 years have passed since Japan's defeat in World War II. Aug. 15 was the anniversary.
Simply put, the generation of war veterans is passing on, and with them recollections of where Japanese soldiers fought and died.
To understand the scope of the problem, remains are scattered as far away as the Aleutian Islands to the north, the Solomon Islands to the south, and most points in between.
Over the past 15 years, it is estimated that only 3 percent of the remains have been collected and returned to Japan.
Of the 2.4 million military personnel who died overseas and in Okinawa and Iwojima island, the remains of 1.133 million individuals lie where they fell.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has made a determined effort to retrieve remains in the Philippines.
In fiscal 2009 and 2010, the remains of about 9,000 and 8,000 war dead were collected in the country and elsewhere.
But in other years between fiscal 1997 and 2011, the remains of anywhere from 600 to 3,000 soldiers were recovered annually.
Still, the effort in the Philippines resulted in the largest number recovered and returned from a single region. The total comes to about 16,000.
Even so, the remains of 370,000 soldiers are thought to still lie there. The figure accounts for about 30 percent of all remains that are unaccounted for.
Despite the success in the Philippines, collection efforts came to a halt after it emerged that local residents were mixing the bones of ancestors with the Japanese war dead. This ghoulish turn of events resulted from a policy of paying poor Filipinos for every set of remains recovered.
Welfare ministry officials sounded out their Philippine counterparts last October about signing a memorandum of understanding for the resumption of the collection of remains. So far, there has been no response.
The remains of about 14,000 soldiers are still believed to be in the former Soviet Union. Since 1991, documents, such as rosters of prisoners of war held in Siberia and maps of burial sites, have been turned over to Japanese officials. Efforts to retrieve remains are continuing.
The Japanese government began its own studies on retrieving the remains of war dead after the San Francisco peace treaty went into effect in 1952. However, the government largely abandoned its effort in fiscal 1975, and handed over the task to groups of bereaved family members, war veterans and nonprofit organizations.
Sure, there is plenty of documentation about the various war sites. But it is the collective knowledge of war veterans that has proved most useful to the retrieval efforts. Once that generation is gone, the task will become much more difficult.
Junshiro Kanaizumi, a sprightly 93-year-old who lives in Tsurugashima, Saitama Prefecture, says he won't rest until he brings back the remains of his war buddies.
Kanaizumi was at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, the scene of ferocious fighting. Of the 30,000 or so soldiers who were sent there, about 20,000 perished.
"I cannot die unless I go there again," Kanaizumi said. "I am the only one left who knows about the fighting."
As a member of a private-sector organization that has been collecting the remains of war dead, Kanaizumi went to Guadalcanal in August 2011 for the first time in 16 years.
In January 1943, Kanaizumi's unit retreated to the village of Kokumbuna, a hilly area that offered a clear view of the ocean.
The bodies of fallen Japanese soldiers were everywhere. Many soldiers were left where they fell, and were quickly reduced to skeletons.
Kanaizumi said he buried about 10 fallen comrades. He would wrap vines around the bodies so he could haul them to a place to bury them. Often, he dug at the red soil with his bare hands when he didn't have a shovel handy.
Carving off bark from fallen trees, Kanaizumi wrote the names of the fallen soldiers using colored pencils to mark the graves. Kanaizumi spent four months on the island.
He was part of a corps of engineers that landed on Guadalcanal in October 1942 and put in charge of a project to clear jungle and build a road so Japanese troops could retake an airfield on the eastern part of the island.
"Ships fired at us from the sea, planes attacked from the air and artillery bombarded us from land," Kanaizumi recalled. "I didn't think I would survive."
With supply lines cut off, many of his fellow soldiers died from malnutrition and malaria.
Survivors could only move forward while leaving the dead behind.
Kanaizumi's unit retreated from Guadalcanal in February 1943 due to the overwhelming firepower of the United States. Only 300 members survived from the original 1,500 who landed on the island.
Kanaizumi subsequently was sent to the Philippines and Myanmar. After the end of World War II, he established a building contractor's office in Tokyo.
Even in civilian life, he had nightmares about having abandoned so many of his comrades.
"Many of the young soldiers did not have enough to eat and died without ever firing a shot," he said. "However, I cannot say that everything about the war was bad. I have many feelings that cannot be expressed in words."
He still occasionally has dreams of burying his war buddies. The collection of remains is one way for Kanaizumi to come to terms with the war.
He wants to return to Guadalcanal this summer so he can tell his fallen friends, "I have come to take you back home with me."
- « Prev
- Next »