Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday visited Iwoto Island and pledged to speed up the recovery of the remains of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers killed in the Battle of Iwojima, in a pilgrimage intended to mark a break from the postwar period.
“We have to pass the memory of the grisly battle onto the younger generation,” Abe said at a memorial service on Iwoto, previously known as Iwojima and located 1,200 km south of Tokyo.
Abe is the third serving prime minister to visit the island, following in the footsteps of Junichiro Koizumi, also of the Liberal Democratic Party, and Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan.
The now serene isle shows few signs of the horrific battle 68 years ago that left some 22,000 Imperial army soldiers and around 7,000 U.S. service members dead, mainly marines.
But unexploded munitions and numerous caves used as fortresses by Japanese soldiers, including the one from which Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi commanded his troops, still serve as reminders of the scale of the bloodshed. Rampant Leucaena leucocephala, planted by the U.S. military to mask the odor of the thousands of rotting corpses of Japanese soldiers after the island was captured, also recalls the bloodshed.
Since the jurisdiction of Iwojima, as it was known at the time, reverted to Japan in June 1968, the island has mostly been inhabited by Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel and private-sector workers in charge of taking care of monuments and cenotaphs commemorating the war dead. Since 1990, the U.S. Navy also has been holding nighttime takeoff and landing exercises on it.
Abe’s visit preceded a government-backed national ceremony scheduled for April 28 in Tokyo to mark the 60th anniversary of the restoration of Japan’s sovereignty after the Allied Occupation. The ceremony has faced a strong backlash, especially from residents and officials in Okinawa, since the San Francisco Peace Treaty that came into force in 1952 effectively placed Okinawa, Amami Oshima and Iwojima under U.S. control for decades.
But for some relatives of the soldiers killed on Iwojima, the war is far from over. Although the central government has been conducting projects to recover the bones of the Japanese soldiers since 1952, remains of only 12,000 of the 22,000 who perished have been retrieved nearly 70 years on. The remains of the roughly 7,000 marines who fell on the battlefield were retrieved during the U.S. administration of the island.
Relatives and volunteers have been traveling to the island to search caves for more remains based on documents found from the war years, including at the U.S. National Archives in Washington.
“I have been doing this for the last 30 years,” Shoichiro Nagasawa, 82, told Abe, who visited one of the excavation sites with internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo, the grandson of Gen. Kuribayashi.
“My father used to say he wanted to drink a bucket of water because Iwojima does not have any natural” source of its own, said Nagasawa, whose father died in the battle.
While the ranks of the next of kin are aging and thinning, the former Kan administration specially designated fiscal 2011 through fiscal 2013 as a period to intensify the search for the remains. Last year alone, the bones of another 1,300 Japanese soldiers were recovered.
The work was delayed following the March 11, 2011, natural and nuclear calamities, but Abe’s government has pledged to thoroughly comb the island, especially under the runway built on it after the war, using ground radar developed by the Defense Ministry.
“I would like to expedite the process by placing this project under the prime minister’s office,” said Abe.