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Remains of Japanese sailor returned to brother from Pacific War battlefield after 80 years

Sadayuki Nomura holds the remains of his brother Masatoshi, which were retrieved from the Tarawa Atoll in the central Pacific, in the city of Nagasaki on Feb. 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

NAGASAKI -- The remains of Masatoshi Nomura, an Imperial Japanese Navy sailor killed in the fierce fighting on the central Pacific's Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati during World War II, were returned to his family here after an absence of some 80 years, following their identification through DNA testing.

    Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has been conducting DNA testing on the remains of the war dead that had been found without any personal belongings, and since August 2020 this has led to the identification of the remains of four war dead -- two found on the Tarawa Atoll and two on Iwo Jima (officially known in Japan as Ioto). One of those sets of remains were of Masatoshi Nomura, whose family became the first to agree to publicly disclose their return.

    Masatoshi Nomura, third from right, and Sadayuki Nomura, second from left, are seen in this family photo taken before Masatoshi's conscription, provided by Sadayuki Nomura.

    According to the health ministry and other sources, Nomura was from the southwestern Japan prefecture of Nagasaki and was a petty officer second-class belonging to the Sasebo Naval District seventh special naval brigade of the Imperial Japanese Navy. He is believed to have died at age 23 in combat on Tarawa on Nov. 25, 1943. In 2013, a private American group that collects the remains of U.S. soldiers discovered the remains of 162 people believed to be Asians on Tarawa. The group provided the remains to Japan's health ministry via the U.S. Department of Defense in 2019. Nomura's were among them.

    The health ministry had heretofore limited examinations of checking remains against DNA samples of possible relatives to cases where the remains were accompanied by personal belongings or had burial records, except for war remains from the Battle of Okinawa. However, the restriction was also lifted for war remains on Tarawa and Iwo Jima in 2020, taking into consideration that bereaved families were aging.

    Masatoshi Nomura is shown in this photo provided by Sadayuki Nomura.

    In September 2020, remains were identified as belonging to Masatoshi Nomura after they matched DNA samples of Masatoshi's younger brother Sadayuki, 92, of Nagasaki. The bones were returned 80 years after Masatoshi was conscripted in 1941.

    The health ministry is currently accepting applications from bereaved families for testing on remains unaccompanied by personal belongings, limited to those found on Okinawa, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. As of the end of January this year, there have been 1,107 applications for war remains found in Okinawa, 400 for Tarawa, and 99 for Iwo Jima. Testing is planned to be expanded to all areas moving forward, as examinations for Tarawa and Iwo Jima have yielded results. Of the around 2.4 million people who died outside Japan during World War II, the remains of some 1.12 million have yet to be retrieved. Among the remains that have been collected, only 1,190 had been identified as of the end of 2020.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Imano, Nagasaki Bureau)

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