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50 yrs since return of Ogasawara Islands, WWII has yet to end for some ex-residents

"This was my house. All the islanders were like family," Kenji Yamashita says as he points to a map of Iwo Jima restored after the war, at his residence in the Miyamae Ward of Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on June 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

June 26 marks the 50th anniversary of the return of the Ogasawara Islands after the U.S. military controlled them for 23 years following the end of the war, with memorial ceremonies set to be held on June 30 on the central Chichijima Islands and on July 1 on the Hahajima Islands.

Made up of some 30 islands, the Chichijima Islands at the center of the Ogasawaras are about 1,000 kilometers south of the center of Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean, connected to the Japanese mainland via regular ships that travel the 24-hour one-way journey from the capital about once every six days. While the population of the "Galapagos of the East" has grown due to the tourism industry linked to its registry as a UNESCO World Heritage natural site, returning to Iwo Jima island, the location of fierce fighting during World War II, is still prohibited, and issues such as the collection of the remains of war dead are still unsolved.

Kenji Yamashita, 88, a resident of Kawasaki's Miyamae Ward in Kanagawa Prefecture who was born on the war-torn island of Iwo Jima, managed to survive the bloodshed in the final months of the Pacific War when he was forcibly evacuated to the mainland from his home when he was 14 years old. However, the remains of his two "older brothers," who were drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army as civilian employees, have yet to be found.

Many residents of Iwo Jima have passed away without ever being allowed to return to their home, and Yamashita laments, "I wonder if we'll be forgotten."

On the shoebox at the entrance to his residence, Yamashita has displayed a model of a blue canoe. Yamashita made it by hand, drawing on memories of the boat on which his island fisherman father worked. He no longer has any of the items that he brought with him from the island 74 years ago.

Blessed with natural resources, Iwo Jima was home to some 1,200 people before the war. Yamashita's father also cultivated coca plants used for anesthetics, which were popular at the time, in addition to fishing, to support the family of eight. After graduating from elementary school and enrolling in a boys' school, Yamashita came to call two boys a grade higher than him, Susumu Okuyama and Hikohachi Nishihama, "older brothers." They taught him how to play the harmonica, and they would sing military songs with their arms around each other's shoulders. The three of them were inseparable.

But when the war made a turn for the worst in July 1944, Iwo Jima was designated as a base for forces to protect the Japanese mainland, and Yamashita was forcibly evacuated. Okuyama, Nishihama and roughly 20,000 Imperial Army soldiers were ordered to stay on Iwo Jima to prepare for the landing of U.S. forces.

The two other boys came to the beach to see Yamashita off the evening he waited for the boat to transport him to the mainland. After a long silence, Okuyama said, "We're going to die here, OK? Kenji, you better live a long life. You have to come collect our bones for us." The once-rambunctious Nishihama turned away, his shoulders shaking.

Yamashita left his parents and the rest of his family who were living in Tochigi Prefecture to work in a military supply factory in Tokyo, where he had no connections. It was the following spring when he heard that those who had remained on Iwo Jima had been "honorably" defeated.

Working as a janitor and doing other various jobs, Yamashita married a colleague when he was in his 20s and had two children. During Japan's economic boom from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, there was hardly time to think of an island some 1,250 kilometers away. He shut away the feelings of survivor's guilt, and barely spoke at all to his wife or children about his painful memories of being forcibly relocated.

In June 1968, the Ogasawara Islands were returned to Japan, but the government did not allow residents to return to the island due to volcanic activity and other reasons. Amid celebrations, all Yamashita could feel was that the return was meaningless to him.

However, after reaching retirement age and leaving the workforce, Yamashita regained time for himself, and his wish to fulfill his promise to his two "brothers" welled up once more. He joined in the collection of remains on Iwo Jima, helping numerous times with such efforts where over 10,000 souls now rest. He carefully gathered remains from the blistering heat of the ruins of an underground bomb shelter with charred walls so as not to damage them. But he has yet to find any leads that connect any of the remains to Okuyama or Nishihama.

While he still believes that he "will definitely find them eventually," as he loses his physical strength along with the passing years, thoughts that he "doesn't have much time left" have increased his sense of urgency.

Yamashita was invited to attend the memorial ceremonies, but has no intention of going. He still refuses to accept the government's prohibition on residents' return to his home island. "As long as I remain forcibly evacuated from my home, my own war hasn't ended," he says, still unable to forget memories of the tear-filled evening he parted with his "brothers" on the beach.

(Japanese original by Kentaro Mori, City News Department)

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