Tears roll down Heitaro Matsumoto’s face as the 72-year-old businessman talks of an uncle who died on Guam as a Japanese soldier in the hopeless final weeks of World War II.
The remains of Goro Matsumoto, in his mid-20s at the time of his death, have never been found.
Nor have those of 18,000 other Japanese soldiers who died on the island, now a tropical vacation spot for Japanese tourists.
“People sacrificed their lives to fight for the country. And their remains are left abandoned,” said Matsumoto, who is part of a voluntary program to repatriate fallen Japanese soldiers. “Unless we return their bodies, we cannot bring closure to the war.”
Nearly seven decades after hostilities ended in 1945, Japan is still trying, with limited success, to collect remains in an effort seen as a symbolic gesture honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Some 2.4 million Japanese soldiers died overseas during the war and the remains of 1.13 million of them are still unaccounted for in an area stretching from Russia to remote South Pacific islands.
Japan’s efforts have required sensitivity. Memories remain of the bloody war waged in East Asia in particular, where the legacies of brutal colonial rule and nationalistic tensions continue to affect Tokyo’s ties with Beijing and Seoul.
There are also logistic difficulties. For the first seven years after the war, during the Allied Occupation, Tokyo could not dispatch overseas missions.
The lack of diplomatic relations with Beijing until 1972 meant no one could go looking for the tens of thousands who were believed to have perished in China.
Locating the dead is also a huge challenge in terms of finding the roughly 300,000 soldiers who either died at sea or in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Politicians across party lines have passionately supported a program that has annually collected the remains of several hundred to a few thousand, aided in part by sentimental movies depicting the pain of those left behind, unable to hold a proper funeral.
“The (remains-hunt) program is open-ended,” said a welfare ministry official in charge of repatriation issues, calling the program part of national policy.
In 2010, left-leaning then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan launched a three-year project to find remains on Iwoto, which is better known as the island of Iwojima, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War.
Kan boosted the annual budget to more than ¥1 billion a year for three years, a sharp increase from the normal budget of ¥200 million to ¥300 million.
“It is a national duty to collect the remains of those who died for Japan,” Kan said at the time.
“By thoroughly carrying out the recovery program on Iwoto, Japanese territory, I hope to use the momentum for foreign recovery programs,” he said.
Skeptics say Japan should stop the costly program and give up on an almost impossible task.
But others say the country’s complicated links to its wartime history mean it is an important way to come to terms with the past.
Some of the men who governed Japan during its conquest of Asia were convicted as war criminals in trials held by the Occupation forces in the years following Japan’s surrender.
As a defeated aggressor, there is no nationally accepted version of events, or agreement on who was a hero in the years up to 1945, said Haruo Tohmatsu, a professor at the National Defense Academy.
Tokyo, instead, focused its narrative on the building of a modern democracy and becoming a U.S. ally in a new global order.
“You might say Japan was characterized as a sort of a criminal state that disturbed the world,” he said. “It has been difficult for Japan to openly honor people who fought in the war and died.
“Recovery of remains can be interpreted as a form of recognition” of the fallen soldiers without any judgment on the nation’s uncomfortable past, he said.
However, nearly 70 years on, the task risks becoming a practical impossibility.
“The places of their deaths should be regarded as their graves,” said Tohmatsu.
But for aging relatives in a culture that places great emphasis on family graves providing a home for departed souls, it is difficult to give up hope that some day the remains of loved ones will return home.
Heitaro Matsumoto recalls how he watched the skeleton of one soldier — still wearing boots and clutching a grenade — unearthed at a site on Guam.
“We know the remains are there,” Matsumoto said. “We must do this so the memory of that horrific war will never fade.”