The Japanese government is drawing up legislation that will make the repatriation of the bodies of its second-world-war dead a “state responsibility”, but analysts anticipate the initiative will attract renewed criticism from China and South Korea.
The legislation is scheduled to be submitted to the Diet before the end of the month and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is seeking the support of other parties.
Given the LDP’s majorities in both houses of parliament, the legislation is expected to pass with little debate.
Under the proposal, specialist staff will be sent on diplomatic missions in countries where Japanese troops were killed during the conflict with the task of gathering information about the locations of grave sites and battlefields.
Additional funding will also be provided for the work of recovering and repatriating any remains that are located, although no specific figure has been placed on the amount that will be made available.
“Internal Affairs Minister [Yoshitaka] Shindo has been quite adamant in proposing this kind of effort in recent years and there are now many other like-minded politicians in Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe’s government,” Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Japan’s Fukui Prefectural University, told the South China Morning Post.
Shindo was fiercely criticised earlier in January after paying his respects at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine just days after Abe had paid an official visit to the controversial war shrine.
“I believe it is quite natural for any country to try to recover the remains of its soldiers and it is shameful that previous administrations have not done anything about this situation sooner,” Shimada said.
An estimated 2.4 million Japanese were killed at home and overseas during the second world war, with the remains of around 1.13 million people still unaccounted for.
The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has in recent years made tentative efforts to recover remains, with around 2,000 bodies repatriated in both 2011 and 2012.
The government is aiming to increase that number rapidly and records suggest that some 600,000 bodies can be recovered.
The vast majority of these were troops killed in land battles across Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. Tens of thousands died in the fierce fighting in places such as New Guinea, the Philippines, Tarawa, Palau, Guam and Myanmar.
While some were buried in mass graves, others were simply bulldozed into the caves they were defending because it was too dangerous for American troops to try to capture the strongpoints.
“One of the reasons for this new effort is to strengthen diplomatic ties with other nations, such as Myanmar,” said Shimada. “There are the remains of many Japanese killed in Myanmar that have still to be found and it has been hard for Japan to deal with the totalitarian government there in recent years.
“Through this initiative, we can improve our relations and face up to China together.”
Given the deteriorating relationship between Tokyo and Beijing in recent months, however, it is unlikely that China will co-operate in the recovery effort.
Shimada dismisses the impact of Chinese intransigence.
“Most of the cremated remains of men killed in China and on the Korean Peninsula were repatriated during the conflict because they are close to Japan,” he said. “Most of the missing are in Southeast Asia or around the labour camps in Siberia where they were held after being captured by the Soviet Union in the latter stages of the war.
“It is true that no matter what Japan does diplomatically at the moment, China complains,” he added. “But I believe their aggression towards Japan and other nations in the region – the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and others – will only stir up resentment against their heavy-handed tactics.”