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Photo of Japan sailor who died in WWII returned from New Zealand to family

The photo of Hiroshi Takezoe returned to his family. (Courtesy of the Peace Memorial Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Museum)

A photo of an Imperial Japanese Navy sailor who died in the South Pacific during World War II was finally returned to his family after over 70 years, following the photo's discovery in New Zealand.

"I would like to give my thanks to the people who kept the photo for so long," said Takeshi Takezoe, 70, upon receiving the photo of his late uncle Hiroshi Takezoe in June this year. The family home in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, was washed away by the tsunami following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, taking with it photos and items that had belonged to the deceased.

Hiroshi was from the village of Ukedo, now a part of Namie. According to documents kept by a local association of bereaved families of war dead and other sources, he was deployed to the South Pacific and died in November 1943 at the age of 24 on the Gilbert Islands, now the Republic of Kiribati, straddling the equator. In the photo, Hiroshi appears in his naval uniform with the Rising Sun flag in the background. "Current age 23" is inscribed on the back of the photo, along with his address and name.

Fusako Akimoto, the younger sister of Hiroshi Takezoe, smiles as she looks at the returned photo of her brother, in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, on June 27, 2018. (Mainichi)

A New Zealand soldier apparently received the photo from a Japanese prisoner of war once the fighting had ended. His son came across the photos when sorting through his belongings after his death. In April 2017, the son sent a letter and the photo through a Japanese acquaintance to the private Peace Memorial Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Museum in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, saying that he wanted to return the photo to the sailor's family.

Though the photo bore Hiroshi's name and wartime address, the home had been washed away in the 2011 tsunami. Seeing on the museum's website that the institution was searching for the family, this reporter located Takeshi Takezoe, who now resides in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. Finally, this June, the photo was returned.

Hiroshi was the second of nine children, five of whom went to war. Including Hiroshi, three of them never returned, Takeshi said. In front of a still-new Buddhist altar in his home, he said, "I want to start displaying his portrait again, using this photo."

Hiroshi's younger sister Fusako Akimoto, 89, who evacuated from Fukushima and is currently living in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, said that Hiroshi had been lively and had a bright personality, and had been the type of big brother who always looked out for her. When Hiroshi was sent to war, Akimoto says he told their mother not to worry, saying he had enough strength to swim about 12 kilometers.

Takeshi Takezoe, right, and his wife look at the returned photo of his uncle Hiroshi Takezoe, who died during World War II, in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, on June 23, 2018. (Mainichi)

In the funeral urn that was returned to the family, there was only sand. Laying eyes on the photo of her brother, Akimoto said, "I still sometimes see him in my dreams. He has truly come home to us now."

(Japanese original by Jun Kaneko, City News Department)

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