Bone collectors transforming image of Japan’s wartime forces

Bone collectors transforming image of Japan’s wartime forces

The seventieth anniversary of the ending of the Pacific War has prompted a resurgence in war-graves tourism in Japan, writes BEATRICE TREFALT.

In Japan, the seventieth anniversary, in September, of the Japanese defeat prompted reminiscences of misery and bombing damage on the home front. The anniversary also reignited controversies over wartime atrocities, such as the mistreatment of civilians in and around battlefields, the forced labour of Koreans and other colonial subjects, and the abuse of prisoners of war, and led to unprecedented public displays of previously unmentionable war crimes.

Another striking aspect of the anniversary has been the revival among young Japanese of trips to Pacific War battlefields, to collect the remains of war veterans and perform funeral rites—a practice that had dramatically reduced in the 1990s from its heyday in the 1970s.

As well as reflecting the development of war tourism in Japan, the revival of ‘bone-collecting’ suggests that the seventieth anniversary has marked another stage in the transformation of the image of the Imperial Armed Forces. At different times during the postwar period, and in different measures, veterans have experienced admiration and denigration, commemoration and neglect. Advocates for recognising the sacrifices of the wartime generation have often been accused of being right-wing deniers of wartime atrocities. Those arguing that Japan should recognise the war crimes of its armed forces, on the other hand, have been accused of denigrating an entire generation and failing to appreciate the complexity of the history of the Imperial Forces and the nature of their war experiences.

The popularisation of war-graves tourism and the resulting transformation of Pacific War veterans from participants in historical debates to silent and long-dead historical objects of mourning might eventually resolve the tension between oversimplified images of veterans as either war victims or war heroes.


Japanese soldiers demobilised after the war ended were, like those in modern armies the world over, a mixture of conscripts and career soldiers, rural workers and cosmopolitan urbanites, veterans of many campaigns, and those who had barely finished high school. Their wartime experiences, in the first instance, determined the nature of their return home, which was often circuitous and lengthy.

When the war ended in August 1945, there were nearly 5.5 million Japanese soldiers in the Imperial Army and more than 2.4 million in the Imperial Navy. More than 3.5 million were still outside Japan proper, and their disarmament and repatriation—subject to their being cleared of culpability in war crimes—was the first problem confronting their families at home, and the Allies.

The speed of their repatriation was contingent on the needs of the Allied forces that controlled the territory in which the surrendered Japanese forces were located. In the Philippines, the need to demobilise and repatriate American troops meant that the repatriation of Japanese soldiers was given priority and completed swiftly. In Singapore, the shortage of manpower led the British authorities to retain—in contravention of the Geneva Convention—what they called Surrendered Enemy Personnel, until October 1947. The Soviet Union detained probably over half a million Japanese soldiers in labour camps in Siberia, and their patchy and drawn-out repatriation over a decade until 1956 has spawned a number of memoirs but remains an unfamiliar subject to many people in Japan today.

Japanese soldiers returning from Siberia wait to disembark from a ship at Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, in 1946 (Wikimedia Commons).

Another ongoing issue in postwar Japan has been the failure to account reliably for missing soldiers. The disestablishment of the Imperial forces following Japan’s surrender compounded a problem that had already arisen on their road to defeat. As Japanese troops were annihilated across a geographically extended area, organisational structures disappeared along with the paperwork that is another hallmark of modern armies. Some soldiers and sailors disappeared at sea; others died where there were no survivors to note their names; others were buried, unnamed, in mass graves; and others gave false names to their captors because of the shame of surrender.

Consequently, the postwar Japanese government was often unable to say who was dead or captive among the missing after mass repatriation was over in late 1947. Although a few—reckoned in 1949 to be about 150—reappeared after being pronounced dead, this sense of uncertainty pushed families and veterans to go to former battlefields and gather remains throughout the postwar period.

Current efforts by students and some veterans to locate the remains of missing soldiers are emblematic of an ongoing postwar concern with the location and repatriation of war dead that began in Japan as soon as the war ended. But locating the dead and commemorating their sacrifice, at the place of their death overseas or in Japan itself, has been a contentious issue, in Japan and abroad, notably around the commemoration of fallen soldiers—including war criminals—at the Yasukuni Shrine.

Less well-known outside Japan and the Philippines are recent scandals over the transportation of the remains of indigenous Filipino tribesmen, passed off or mistaken as those of Japanese soldiers, to Japan. These remains entered a bureaucratic limbo, as they could not be deposited in Japan’s war cemetery at Chidorigafuchi until their identity was confirmed.

In many places, traces of battles and soldiers’ remains were still visible, prompting charges of callousness against the Japanese state.

In October 1952, a few months after the end of the Occupation, the Japanese government sent its first mission to the Pacific Islands to locate war graves, install monuments and conduct religious rites for the dead. By the early 1960s, with the easing of travel restrictions on ordinary Japanese and the recovery of the Japanese economy, many veterans and families of the missing could at last to travel to former battlefields to see where their comrades and loved ones had died.

Pacifism condemned

The first trip came as a shock to them. In many places, traces of battles and soldiers’ remains were still visible, prompting charges of callousness against the Japanese state for its neglect of veterans, overseas war graves, and the collection of the remains of the fallen. Outspoken veterans condemned the lip-service paid to a pacifism that they considered was not informed by the experiences of those who had been at the front and that allowed the bodies of former soldiers to rot in unmarked graves. Other veterans, however, condemned the critics for glorifying what had been a disaster. Their opposing voices became part of noisy public debates that continued well into the 1990s about the nature of Japan’s war and remembrance.

With their passing, the veterans—many of whom were noisy and opinionated in life—are becoming silent relics, to be dug up and offered prayers by earnest young people. But these bone-collecting missions might also, in time, offer war-grave tourists more than tepid, sentimental nationalism. There is potential for these relics to prompt informed reflection on the legacy of the war—in Japan and the places occupied by its military until 1945.

Main image
Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons licence).

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