Making only the second trip ever by a serving prime minister to the site of the Battle of Iwojima, Naoto Kan paid his respects Tuesday to the more than 21,000 Japanese soldiers killed in one of World War II’s bloodiest battlegrounds — and one that after 65 years is still giving up its dead.
Kan’s visit followed the recent discovery of two mass graves on the tiny, volcanic isle where the remains of roughly 12,000 Japanese soldiers have yet to be recovered. Officials traveling with Kan said the visit underscores his resolve to finally account for all of Iwojima’s dead.
“We will examine every grain of sand,” Kan said, offering a prayer at one of the two mass graves. “It is hard to imagine from the beauty of the island today what happened here 65 years ago.”
Now officially known as Iwoto — the name it was called by residents before the battle — Iwojima, 1,100 km south of Tokyo, was the site of one of the most fateful and iconic battles in the Pacific and helped turn the tide against the Japanese.
For Americans, the AP photo of U.S. Marines and a navy corpsman raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi is one of the most lasting symbols of the war, and of American sacrifice and bravery. More Medals of Honor were awarded for valor on Iwojima than in any other single campaign. In Japan, however, Iwojima is seen as just one of many bloody defeats.
It has been generally ignored since the war, has been left largely untouched and is now uninhabited except for a Self-Defense Forces outpost and airstrip.
Kan is only the second prime minister to visit the island. Junichiro Koizumi was the first, five years ago.
But Kan’s administration, inspired in part by the success in Japan of the 2006 Clint Eastwood movie “Letters from Iwo Jima” and concerned that time is running out, has made a strong effort to bring closure by stepping up the civilian-run mission to retrieve all of the Japanese dead.
That project began in July and took a big step forward in October, when two mass graves that may hold the remains of more than 2,000 Japanese soldiers were discovered by search teams.
Working from documents provided by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Japanese teams found sites listed as “enemy cemeteries” near a runway at the SDF outpost and at the foot of Suribachi.
Yukihiko Akutsu, a special adviser to Kan who is heading the search mission, said the main grave site holds the remains of roughly 2,000 soldiers, and the Suribachi site between 70 and 200. The excavation effort is expected to take several months, but Akutsu said the teams have already found 51 sets of remains, some swathed in cotton, in the two areas.
Akutsu said the government will notify Washington if the remains of any Americans are dug up.
The discovery of the mass graves could be one of the biggest breakthroughs in decades toward recovering Iwojima’s dead.
“This is a very significant mission,” Akutsu said.
“Because we lost the war, for a long time there was not much enthusiasm about projects like this,” he said. “But time is running out. The families of the dead, their brothers and sisters, are in their 80s. We would like to settle this issue in the next three years.”
Iwojima’s defenders were deeply entrenched in caves, bunkers and tunnels, and the shelling by the Americans was so intense that finding remains has been an almost impossible task despite small-scale annual searches since the 1950s.
Identification of the decomposed dead presents another hurdle. Few Japanese soldiers wore dog tags or other identification. Unidentified remains are sent to a tomb in Tokyo for unknown soldiers.
Of the roughly 22,000 Japanese tasked with defending the rugged isle, 21,570 were killed, as were 6,821 Americans. Remains are found every year, but about 12,000 Japanese are still listed as missing in action and presumed killed on the island, along with 218 Americans.
The U.S. forces considered the island of key strategic value, as it had an early warning radar station and three airfields used by Japanese fighter planes that posed a threat to U.S. bombing raids on Tokyo and the main islands. The U.S. wanted the airfields for its fighter escorts.