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Remains of 600 Battle of Okinawa war dead excluded from DNA testing

Takamatsu Gushiken, head of Gamafuya, a volunteer group that recovers the remains of those who perished in the Battle of Okinawa toward the end of the Pacific War, places an offering of tea before remains the group has recovered. (Mainichi)

ITOMAN, Okinawa -- The unidentified remains of some 600 victims of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 have not undergone DNA testing, despite there being bones from hands and legs with which DNA identification is possible, it has been learned.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) attributed its decision to leave the remains untested -- despite its April expansion of DNA testing from teeth only to hands and legs -- to "the possibility that other people's bones may be mixed in."

    The remains of the approximately 600 people, found in Okinawa Prefecture from 2013 onward, are being stored in separate bags in a warehouse serving as a provisional morgue at Peace Memorial Park in the prefectural city of Itoman. Unidentified remains recovered prior to 2013 were cremated.

    DNA analysis, the only method capable of identifying the remains, was begun in 2003. However, remains that could be tested were required to meet strict criteria, including the recovery of personal effects of the deceased and the registration of the deceased's name on a list of those who were buried. As a result, 99 percent of war-dead remains that have since been identified belonged to those sent to work camps in Siberia. Only four people with military connections in Okinawa Prefecture have been identified.

    A law passed in March 2016 promoting the recovery of war-dead remains stipulates that recovery efforts are the central government's responsibility. The health ministry not only expanded remains subject to DNA analysis to include hand and leg bones, but also halted its policy of testing only remains that are accompanied by personal effects.

    In Okinawa Prefecture, DNA testing now covers a broad swath of war victims including civilians, who accounted for half of the approximately 180,000 people killed in the prefecture. Currently, the hands and legs of 84 people, whose teeth have also been recovered, are eligible for DNA testing on an experimental basis. While applications for testing have been filed by 194 people, some 600 bodies remain ineligible for DNA analysis.

    Among the remains of the 600 or so war dead are multiple hand and leg bones, according to sources close to the situation. However, they have not been put through DNA analysis because, in addition to multiple numbers of the same body part being discovered in the same location, the health ministry questions whether "just one piece of bone can be counted as one person."

    It is believed that it is technologically possible that if the remains are well preserved, a sample from a femur could be taken and tested, and once the identity of the remains are determined, the bones could be returned to surviving family members.

    "We want bereaved families' hopes for the return of their family members to be honored, even if it's just one piece of bone," says Takamatsu Gushiken, a 63-year-old representative of Gamafuya, a volunteer group that works to recover the remains of Battle of Okinawa victims.

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