Temple hands remains of Korean war dead to kin

by Akemi Nakamura

More than 60 years after the war, 50 South Koreans can finally take the remains of their loved ones home.

The South Koreans attended a memorial ceremony Tuesday at Yutenji Temple in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, to commemorate Koreans who served in the Japanese military and died during the war. The visitors, who arrived in Japan on Monday, were scheduled to return home Wednesday with the remains of 101 of their relatives.

During the ceremony organized by the government, most of which was closed to the media, Senior Vice Foreign Minister Hitoshi Kimura offered an apology to the South Korean participants by quoting the 1998 Japan-South Korea joint declaration signed by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, health ministry officials said.

In the declaration, Tokyo expressed remorse and an apology for the damage and pain imposed on the people of what is now South Korea during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

It was the first time the government invited relatives of fallen Korean soldiers and civilian workers to such a memorial ceremony. Usually only Seoul officials attend events for handing over remains.

After the ceremony, Kim Kyung Bong, representative of the 50 South Koreans, expressed mixed feelings.

“I feel indignant,” said Kim, 71, whose older brother was recruited by the Japanese military in 1944 at age 20 and died of illness in China. “I wonder why this happened and why it took so long to be resolved.”

Kim learned only about a year ago some of the details of his brother’s death, and that the temple was holding his remains.

“I feel sorry for him because he had to die on a battlefield, without ever having a chance to marry, to have a family and a job,” he said, adding he feels compelled to ensure such a fate doesn’t befall future generations.

During the war, about 240,000 Koreans were recruited to work for the Imperial forces. Of them, some 22,000 died in Japan or overseas, many in battle.

The government collected the remains of Koreans after the war and asked Yutenji Temple in 1971 to keep those of 2,326 Korean soldiers and civilian workers as well as those of their kin. Before that, the remains were kept inside the health ministry compound.

About 1,200 sets of remains at the temple had been returned to relatives as of 1984. The remains of 1,135 Koreans — 704 hailing from South Korea and 431 from what is now North Korea — have been kept at the temple.

Tokyo has cooperated with Seoul to collect and hand over more remains since December 2004. The South Korean government has found relatives of 288 Koreans whose remains are kept at the temple.