What inspired me to begin recovering the remains of dead soldiers

For nine years I have continued working to recover the remains of Japanese Army officers and soldiers who were killed in action during the Greater East Asian War (Pacific War). Through this experience I have come to believe that the most important thing for Japan today is to share our gratitude towards all of the officers and soldiers in the Japanese Army who fought in this war. In this essay I will discuss my actual activities recovering remains as well as my feelings regarding the Japanese Army soldiers.
It is said that approximately 2.4 million officers and soldiers from the Japanese Army died in the Greater East Asian War. Nearly half of them (approximately 1.15 million people) are still resting at old battlefields all over the world. These soldiers dedicated their lives and died fighting to defend their country, and it is terribly sad that the remains of these Japanese people are still left behind where they can’t be brought back to Japan.
I learned of the efforts to recover these remains when I was a student and read a farewell letter left behind by Takeshi Chatani, a young soldier only 22 years of age. To summarize, the letter read as follows:

The time has come at last for me to be useful. Father, I regret that I haven’t allowed you a moment of peace during my over 20 years of life. I realize now that you have been a more doting parent than most and can well imagine how you must feel reading this letter.
Yet at this time when the Empire is facing a crisis, we must conceal our tears. Even if my body is laid waste, I most certainly do not lament our deaths when I think of the children and grandchildren of the future who will go beyond our deaths and rise up based on what we have done, and also of the people to come who will have our red blood surging within them.
Please praise me with a smile; I will be smiling as I fall. Farewell.
- Takeshi

Takeshi was killed in battle on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. This letter was astonishing to me. Since I was a child I had been told at school just how bad the Japanese Army and soldiers were. This letter didn’t touch on the idea of the “bad Japanese soldiers” that I had held up until then, but was instead an example of a man’s thoughts towards his parents and all the future descendents of the Japanese people. Takeshi was saying that he would sacrifice his life to protect the Japanese people who hadn’t been born yet. My parents were born as the result of being protected by people like Takeshi, and we have been born as his descendents just like he hoped.
Reading this letter made me break out in tears because it was the first time I realized that I was alive thanks to the protection of these soldiers. Around the same time I learned of the activities taking place to recover the soldiers’ remains, and I came to strongly believe that I wanted to do everything I could to bring the remains of these people – who had defended Japan with their own hands – back to the place they were born. If nothing else, I wanted to express my gratitude as a member of the generation made up of the grandchildren of people like Takeshi.

Time has stopped underneath the ground

The first place I went to recover the remains of Japanese soldiers was Myanmar, the location of the Battle of Imphal and the place where 190,000 of the 320,000 Japanese Army troops died in battle.
I went to recover remains from the village of Kado which is located on the escape route from the Battle of Imphal. It is part of the “skeleton road,” named for the way that war dead lay in rows like a road. There was a Japanese Army field hospital in Kado where many Japanese soldiers died in pain. Our remains recovery group went to collect the remains of people resting at the site of the former field hospital. The site where we were working was surrounded by dense forest and the only information we had was that the field hospital had been somewhere in this vast area.
The scenery has changed between the end of the war and the present day. No matter how much dirt we dug up it was difficult to find any traces of the past. Two Japanese soldiers who had fought in Myanmar during the war came to help us with our search at the old field hospital, frantically pleading, “We’ve come to get you. Please, answer us from inside the ground.” Yet after we spent a whole week digging in the village we weren’t able to find the remains of even one person from this vast area of land. Trying to recover these remains made me keenly feel just how long a period over 60 years is.
The next place I visited was eastern New Guinea, where 160,000 soldiers fought. Of those, over 150,000 never stepped foot in Japan again. Most of them died from starvation and disease while only a few of them were killed in battle.
We immediately went to a village that was supposedly holding the remains of Japanese soldiers in safekeeping. At the entrance to the village there was a hot piece of corrugated iron. Arranged carelessly atop this were the remains of many people and many lost articles with the names of Japanese people written on them. We didn’t believe our eyes. When we promptly went to receive the remains we were asked to pay money to buy them; the remains atop the iron sheet were merchandise on display. Yet we were certainly unable to spend money to “purchase” the remains of Japanese people in this way – both for ethical reasons and because we did not want to set a precedent for the future.
After negotiating for many hours we paid cash as an “allowance” to make up for the days that the villagers had to take off from farm work to discover the remains. This was the only way we could get hold of the remains. We heard that there had been Japanese people in the past who paid money for remains and we were all angry that this was the cause of the current situation. But upon further thought, I had to consider what I might have done if my own father had been killed in action in this village and his remains were before my eyes. Would I have been able to depart from the village and leave my father’s remains behind me while saying “I can’t ethically purchase human remains with money”? I possibly – no, probably – would have been unable to do so. I’m sure the feeling that I wanted to bring my father’s remains back with me, no matter how much money it cost, would have won. Everyone is alike in wanting the remains returned but negotiations become more difficult with each year that passes. This is a challenge that we Japanese will have to surmount in the future.
The third place I visited for the recovery of remains was Manus Island, located above the main island of New Guinea. In 1944 the American and Australian Armed Forces wanted to claim this island as a transit point for their strategy towards the Philippines. To prevent this, approximately 3,700 soldiers in the Japanese Army tried to defend the island. Yet the attack of the enemies resulted with only 77 soldiers of the Japanese Army still alive. Even now the remains of many people are left out in the open. This island was also where trials were held for Class B and C war criminals after the war. Over 200 Japanese people were made to do heavy labor in harsh conditions and five were put to death. Currently Manus Island is known as a popular resort area even in Japan, but the corpses and tears of many Japanese people are buried there.
After reaching the top of a steep mountain we found the remains of one person silently sleeping inside a dark cave. Outside the cave was an extensive jungle. I couldn’t stop crying when I thought of the people decades ago dying a terrible death here from heat, starvation, and malaria. I addressed the remains, saying “well, let’s go back to Japan.” When I picked them up I felt a profound weight as well as the dignity of this soul I was holding in my arms who had sacrificed his life in battle.
I have also recovered remains from Siberia. After the end of the war over 600,000 Japanese soldiers and citizens were interned in Siberia. The winters in this area are severely cold (temperatures range from minus 30 to 60 degrees Celsius [minus 86 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit]) and 60,000 people died from forced labor and hunger.
On the first day we found some remains buried deep in the cold ground: a dead man sleeping naked in the chilly, sticky earth. He hadn’t seen the light of day in over half a century and was young enough when he died that his wisdom teeth were still in the process of growing in. Next to him was an elderly man with false teeth and round glasses. We also found a hole with the bodies of eight people piled atop each other. I have heard from people who fought in the war that digging even one hole in the concrete-like dirt amidst the freezing cold to bury their comrades who had passed away was quite an undertaking. The people who dug this grave to bury the corpses of their compatriots must have been full of sadness.
A soldier who fought the Soviet Union in Manchuria spoke of his comrades in arms as follows: “To stop the Soviet tanks my friends filled their futon [sleeping mats] with gunpowder, wrapped them around their bodies, and jumped onto the tanks. When they denoted the grenades in their futon, they were blown up along with the tanks. When their guns were gone in the end, they protected their country by using their own bodies as explosives.” These suicide attack units, who used “futon bombing,” aren’t very well known. Teenage boys carried out acts of suicide bombing to protect Japan by filling their futonwith gunpowder, wrapping them around their bodies, and throwing themselves onto tanks. The ones who survived this died after the war ended while being interned in Siberia.
In Mongolia we worked to recover the remains of people who were killed in the Nomonhan Incident. We went to the place where the Japanese Army fought with the Soviet and Mongolian forces over the border between Manchuria and the Khalkha River. The fight is referred to an “incident,” but it was actually a battle in which 7,700 Japanese officers and soldiers died. In Mongolia it’s called the “Battle of Khalkhyn Gol.”
When digging, we found a deeply buried Soviet Army tank. A dead body without a head was clinging to the top of the roof. According to the scholar who was with us, the man had given his life to try to stop the Soviet tank by throwing himself upon it when his head had been blown off by a shell from another tank. This is what is called defending your country. The corpse clinging to the tank was telling us that the Japanese soldiers were not cruel villains. If we didn’t find his head as soon as possible, his body would be taken back to Japan and his head left in Nomonhan. We dug deeply and desperately all over the area but couldn’t find the head anywhere. We cremated the headless remains, and the bones from his body made noise as they crumbled into ashes.
On the last day of our stay we came back on a transport plane along with the remains. Outside the window the majestic land of Nomonhan spread out below our eyes. The man’s skull was somewhere in this area…the head that had been eternally separated from his body since that moment he was bombed after jumping onto the Soviet tank to stop it. It was probably impossible to reunite the man’s head with his body, and as I thought of that Japanese man’s skull left behind in the Mongolian plain I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
On Iwo Jima the Japanese fought to the bitter end to protect the Japanese mainland. Everyone worked frantically to accomplish Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s command to “fight to the end…each day that we fight is a day that postpones the attack on Japan. This means that we might save even one more woman or child who will give birth to more Japanese people.” They created a military encampment by digging trenches and bunkers and managed for over a month to protect the island that everyone said would be captured by the American Army in five days. However, most of the officers and soldiers were brought down by gunfire or burned to death in the trenches. In the end, 22,000 people died honorable deaths.
When we went to receive the remains they were so scattered that it was hard to look at them. When I picked up the remains of a man with a large hole in his face from a bomb the only thing I could do was say “thank you for protecting Japan.” Even now 13,000 men are buried in the earth at Iwo Jima.
I also went to the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Luzon is where Takeshi Chatani, the man whose letter inspired me to begin working to recover the remains of soldiers, died in battle. There our mission was to receive remains that had been laid out and were resting at a temporary morgue atop a mountain. When I entered the small building I was thoroughly shocked. The dim, gloomy room contained the remains of 4,083 people, which filled the room from corner to corner and even up to its roof. This ghastly sight caused me to feel awe and fear. The small morgue, full of 4,083 corpses, echoed with the cries of the souls within who were longing to return home.
In Japan the war is being forgotten and the Japanese officers and soldiers are thought of as having been bad people. In a place like that, can you imagine such a heroic spectacle? Japanese economics and science are progressing daily at a dizzying pace and we are heading towards an affluent future. But just like the small building in Luzon, it is as if time has stopped at hundreds and thousands of old battlefields all over the world where the remains of 1.15 million Japanese people are crying out to be brought home.
We also found the remains of a person holding a bag in which two human bones had been carefully placed. Both of these small bones were throat bones that from the front resemble the Buddha sitting cross-legged for meditation. A human only has one of these bones, so the bones in the bag came from two people. According to an expert in the Philippines, the man’s comrades in arms had probably been cremated and the man constantly carried the bones with him so he could send them to the bereaved families. But the soldier himself died in battle and he became remains himself. More than 60 years later the three troops were recovered in the form of the remains of one man’s body holding two small throat bones. Even in the midst of fierce fighting the man burned the remains of his comrades and continued carrying those two throat bones with him until the day he died. These three men must have been very close friends.
There were many instances in this war in which the soldiers of a unit were annihilated without being able to tell anyone the truth of what happened. They say that each soldier experienced such unspeakable, unimaginable pain that it couldn’t all be written down even in the extensive War History Series「戦史叢書」 that spans 102 volumes. The more I learn about these things the more I feel that we must make sure the thoughts and hopes of the people who died to protect their country are still heard in the future.
In this way I’ve gone to a number of different areas to collect the remains of soldiers over the past nine years. In each place I visited, the soldiers died in situations that clearly conveyed their firm belief that they wanted to protect Japan no matter what happened. Over 60 years of history are preserved right in the dirt.
I also believe that the condition of these soldiers at the time of their death is firm proof that the Japanese Army was certainly not waging a war of aggression but was instead fighting to protect its native country. I wish these things could be seen by everybody who says that the Japanese Army was made up of bad people who were carrying out an invasion and that we must apologize for what they did. I would also like to ask them, “When you see this dead soldier without a head clinging to the tank, do you still think that the Japanese Army was bad?” “When you see these teenage boys with futonwrapped about their bodies who were bombed to death underneath tanks, do you think that Japan should be issuing apologetic statements?” The soldiers who died wanted so badly to return to Japan. Yet when their remains are recovered and brought back, people are taught that the Japanese Army did terrible things and Japan is permeated with an apologetic and masochistic view of history. Of course I hope for the remains of dead soldiers to be returned to Japan, but I think they would be extremely sad if they knew about the current situation. From now on our most important task is to rebuild Japan as a country that these dead soldiers can feel glad to return to.

Sharing our gratitude towards the people who defended Japan

Furthermore, it is equally important that we express our gratitude to the officers and soldiers who are still alive. I once heard a Japanese person saying horrible things to two former Japanese soldiers: “The Japanese Army did such terrible things that the people in Asia despise them,” and “The Japanese Army carried out brutal invasions.” When the two former soldiers, thinking “tell that to our comrades who died in battle,” began singing a war song they were sternly told to stop singing militaristic songs. The two of them didn’t make any objections but just looked down at the ground sadly.
When everyone else had left and the only people remaining were the two men and me, I heard them quietly say “maybe we shouldn’t have lived this long” and “do they really hate us so much for the things we did during the war?” Looking at their profiles they seemed about to cry. And one of them passed away a little while after returning to Japan.
These soldiers and officers who fought to protect Japan are spending their lives, even dying, while thinking “maybe we shouldn’t have lived this long” and “we are hated for the terrible things we did during the war.” This is a truly painful reality, but it is happening all over Japan.
Soldiers are treated as villains in postwar Japan, but not because they really were villains. The reason for this is because the policies of the GHQ (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) specified that creating a situation like this would be the cheapest way to emotionally occupy the defeated country of Japan. This is why various methods were implemented after the war to make people think badly of the Japanese soldiers, an ideology that is still strongly present today. The soldiers in the Japanese Army fought bravely and risked their lives for the “children and grandchildren of the future,” yet they are thought of as evil people by the very children and grandchildren they wanted to protect.
For the soldiers, the over 60 years since the end of the war must have been both sad and regrettable. How did they feel as their lives were ending? I posed this question to a soldier and his response was, “We wanted wholeheartedly to protect our country. We weren’t evil people. What did we do that was evil? Yet the world has decided that we are villains so I’m sure we’ll be thought of that way for the rest of our lives.”
We must change this situation. Now is probably our last chance to say “thank you for protecting Japan during the war” to the soldiers and officers. Right now the youngest soldiers who participated are in their 80’s, and most of them are over 90 or have already passed away. There’s no time left; this is truly our last chance.
I’ll never forget the face of the soldier who said, “maybe we shouldn’t have lived this long.” To prevent even one person from thinking this I would like for Japanese people to share their appreciation with the former soldiers and officers all over the country. Now is the time for us to convey our gratitude to all of the Japanese Army officers and soldiers who fought in the Greater East Asian War.