The Yomiuri ShimbunThe health ministry’s latest action must be described as an insincere response that lacks consideration for the families impatiently waiting for the return home of the remains of their kin.
The case involves remains brought back to Japan by a group of collection personnel sent by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry after it was deemed that they belonged to Japanese detained in Siberia. However, the remains included bones that belonged to a non-Japanese person.
DNA analysis was conducted on the remains in Japan, and it showed that the bones were not those of Japanese. The results were reported to a closed-door session of an expert panel at the ministry in August last year. However, the health ministry did not reveal the results, and it did not convey them to the Russian side, either.
The ministry has said, “It has taken time to closely examine and sort out the results.” Still, it must be open to the criticism that it was negligent. The ministry should promptly hold talks with the Russian side over such matters as the return of the remains to them and another investigation.
After the end of World War II, about 600,000 Japanese soldiers and others were forcibly taken to Siberia and elsewhere by the former Soviet Union. About 54,000 are believed to have died there because of harsh labor and insufficient food.
Projects to recover the remains of such detainees started in fiscal 1991, and the remains of about 21,900 detainees had been returned to Japan by the end of June this year. The latest revelation concerns the remains of 16 detainees excavated in the Zabaikal region of eastern Siberia in August 2014.
Learn from errors
In that year’s project, the group of people working to collect remains visited a place presumed to have been used to bury Japanese who died while in detention, and a Russian with relevant expertise judged the remains in question to belong to Japanese. The ministry needs to inspect whether there was a problem with how the location was judged to be a burial place, as well as with the method used to identify the nature of the remains.
The latest case is not the first where problems were discovered in connection with the task of collecting the remains of war dead.
Bones of non-Japanese were included in some remains that had been collected in the Philippines by a Japanese nonprofit organization commissioned by the health ministry. Because of this, collection work was suspended from 2010 to last year.
In 2016, teeth from the remains of 61 detainees subject to a DNA analysis were mistakenly incinerated in Russia. This made it impossible to determine whom they belonged to.
Lessons learned from past errors have not been applied to prevent a recurrence. The ministry must seriously reflect upon this.
The law on the promotion of war-dead remains collection — lawmaker-initiated legislation established in 2016 — states that gathering such remains is a duty of the national government. A total of about 2.4 million Japanese died abroad in World War II, with approximately 1.12 million never making it home.
Necessary measures include intensively conducting on-site investigations into presumed burial grounds. Another step is to secure personnel with expertise in DNA analysis to reinforce the framework for carrying out such examinations on the remains brought back to Japan. A health ministry expert council has put together proposals incorporating these ideas.
The families of the war dead are aging. The government should take its own duty to heart, and earnestly grapple with the task in cooperation with pertinent nations, to ensure as many remains as possible can return home.