The reasons may be cultural – the Japanese still have old folk who place a lot of importance on family graves – or maybe nationalistic sentiment. Whatever the case may be, Japan is still trying to repatriate the remains of over 2 million soldiers who died overseas during the World War II. The task, however, with each passing year grows from plain difficult to being a practical impossibility.
Heitaro Matsumoto is a 72-year-old businessman involved in volunteer work to find and return the remains of fallen soldiers in the island of Guam. Over 18,000 Japanese soldiers died on the island, which is now incidentally a favorite vacation destination for Japanese tourists. “People sacrificed their lives to fight for the country. And their remains are left abandoned,” said Matsumoto. “Unless we return their bodies, we cannot bring closure to the war.” The issue of closure is a pertinent one for many Japanese as well, enough that the repatriation of the remains of WWII soldiers has become a national policy. Politicians have passionately supported this program, but it is only able to collect several hundred to a few thousand remains every year. In 2010, the program gained a boost as then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan launched a three-year side project to collect and return remains on Iwoto Island, commonly known as Iwo Jima, site of one of the bloodiest confrontations of the war in the Pacific. The annual budget for the program was increased to more than one billion yen a year, a great improvement from the 200 to 300 million yen allotted before Kan.
But the task has grown increasingly difficult as each year passes. Most will look back with regret to the early years after the war, where Japanese travel was curtailed by the U.S. occupation of the country and so was not able to start repatriation efforts earlier. The logistics and the scope of the current task are nightmarish to behold. Diplomatic relations with Beijing only started in 1972, meaning that efforts to look for the tens of thousands believed to have perished in what is now China didn’t start being possible until then. Now, relations with China are again degenerating, making the search a virtual impossibility. Over 300,000 soldiers are believed to have perished at sea while being transported by ship, and the countless deaths in the jungles of Southeast Asia present a different challenge altogether. More to the fact, Japan has always had to tread lightly on Asian sensitivities, as memories of the war remain fresh and painful when it comes to Japan’s failed quest for empire. Still, the country persists in its efforts in one way or another. “The program is open-ended at this point,” said a welfare ministry official in charge of repatriation issues. “We are conducting the program as a national policy.”