I have quoted the following poem in this column before. It goes: "Pitiful are the war dead/ Pitiful are soldiers who die/ Death comes to them suddenly/ In foreign lands far from home/ They die suddenly/ All alone."
Kozo Takeuchi (1921-1945), who penned that heartrending verse, died in action in the Philippines in the final year of World War II.
Titled "Hone no Utau" (Ashes sing), the poem earned broad recognition. People would not let Takeuchi's genius go to waste.
In the poem, Takeuchi imagines himself as a fallen soldier whose ashes return home in a box of unvarnished wood. "Unbearably sad" is how he describes his death and homecoming.
Takeuchi's ashes never came home from the Philippines. He was not the only one.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare bungled a project to collect the remains of Japanese soldiers in the Philippines and bring them home. It has been discovered that the remains, once believed to be those of Japanese servicemen, were mixed with the remains of many non-Japanese, presumably Filipinos.
Many grave robberies have been reported locally in recent years. Though the link between those robberies and the mixed-up bones is still open to question, I can well imagine the distress of many bereaved families of the Japanese soldiers.
The problem apparently stemmed from the fact that the health ministry delegated the management of the project on the ground to a nongovernmental organization.
The ashes of 4,500 people--once believed to be those of the Japanese war dead--have been removed from their resting place at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo.
Pitiful indeed are the war dead whose ashes cannot rest in peace even after coming home at long last. And pitiful, too, are the Filipino deceased whose graves have been violated. Their identities must be determined, and they must be returned to where they belong.
This whole affair of collecting the remains of Japanese soldiers overseas would not have been necessary had Japan not turned a foreign country into a battlefield. We must never forget this when we mourn the dead.
The essayist Itsuko Okabe (1923-2008), who lost her fiance in the Battle of Okinawa, wrote: "I can't help feeling that the ashes can be just as fortunate or unfortunate as the living." I want the people involved in the recovery of the remains of the war dead to show that sort of sincerity.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 7
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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