Thursday, 13 August 2015

Japan: Ashes of thousands of wartime dead still unclaimed

The remains of thousands of civilians killed during World War II still remain unclaimed by relatives and languish in storage at temples and other sites across the country, an Asahi Shimbun survey shows.

The families of more than 7,400 people have yet to claim ashes stored in eight cities across Japan, even though the deceased have been identified based on name tags and other items attached to their clothing.

Many of the victims were killed in U.S. air raids. But in Okinawa, the victims were caught up in shelling and fighting.

In an effort to tally the unclaimed remains, The Asahi Shimbun contacted local governments, private-sector organizations, temples and other parties. The study covered Okinawa and 71 cities where 100 or more people are said to have died in connection with the war.

Although the central government has been diligently working to return the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the war to their families, there had been no detailed research on the uncollected remains of civilians killed in U.S. air raids and other means.

According to the survey results, the ashes of 3,701 people stored in Tokyo have been identified but remain unclaimed by relatives. The figures for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were both leveled by atomic bombing in 1945, are 815 and 122, respectively.

Each of the three cities annually receives several inquiries and ashes have been returned in some cases. But in many instances, ashes that have been identified cannot be claimed because all family members perished in the war, according to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

The ashes of more than 2,700 identified civilians remain unclaimed in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, Yokohama, Hamamatsu, Osaka and Sakai, Osaka Prefecture. Because the bodies of victims were cremated and buried together in those five cities, relatives are now unable to collect the remains.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki city governments publicly disclose names of the identified victims. In the case of Hamamatsu and Sakai, bereaved families can view lists of remains that have been identified by contacting the temples and private groups storing them. Tokyo and Osaka do not publicly disclose the identities of remains.

The Asahi Shimbun also learned that unidentified remains of more than 300,000 people were buried together at temples and other facilities in Okinawa, Tokyo and 11 other cities.

More than 500,000 civilians are thought to have perished in Japan in World War II, mainly as a result of U.S. air raids.

One reason behind the large number of unclaimed remains is that it was difficult for Japanese officials during the war to identify victims and locate their families in the face of intensified aerial attacks by the United States.

According to records on damage to Tokyo during the war and other source material, the police were responsible for examining and identifying those killed in airstrikes.

But police were overwhelmed by the number of victims in the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 10, 1945. Corpses were laid out on city streets for several days so people could find their families. The bodies were later transferred to nearby parks and elsewhere for tentative burial because it was thought that leaving them laid out on the ground for a prolonged period could undermine the people's fighting spirit.

Victims of the Great Tokyo Air Raid were exhumed and cremated after the end of the war so they could be enshrined at a Tokyo government-run memorial facility.

Although some of the victims of the air raid were identified, those remains could not be returned to relatives because the bereaved families did not know where or even if the ashes were being stored.

Interviews with bereaved families showed they could not afford to claim their relatives’ ashes as they were caught up on the task of rebuilding their own lives. In some cases, ashes were not returned because authorities mixed up names.

“The wartime authorities prioritized hiding corpses rather than identifying them so as not to lower citizens’ morale,” said Katsumoto Saotome, director of the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage. “If the authorities had actively sought bereaved families of the remains immediately following the war, more ashes may have been returned to their relatives by now.”

Thursday 13 August 2015


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