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A local rumor about the remains of scores of Japanese soldiers having been found in a jungle cave brought 83-year-old Takashi Nagase to a western Thai province bordering Myanmar.

Takashi Nagase and his wife, Yoshiko, recite a Buddhist sutra before a jungle cave in a western Thai province.

The trip was the 108th such pilgrimage for Nagase, who was first in Thailand during World War II as an Imperial Japanese Army interpreter and began his activities to recover the remains of war dead there in the late 1960s.

Serving the war dead on both sides of the conflict, he initially made the journeys mainly to pray for the souls of thousands of British, Dutch and Australian prisoners-of-war and tens of thousands of Asian laborers who died during the rush construction of the infamous Thai-Burmese Railway for the Japanese forces.

“Being in this country puts me in much higher spirits than being in Japan,” said Nagase, speaking beside his wife, Yoshiko, 72, who accompanied him on his latest journey.

He said he most recently left his home in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, for Thailand after hearing of a local monk’s claim to have found the skeletons of scores of Japanese soldiers inside and around Lechea Cave in western Kanchanaburi Province. When he heard the news, he told himself the remains should be cared for. But his quest to find them was in vain.

Rumors were also swirling at the time about huge booty hidden away in the same cave by the Japanese army as it retreated from Burma toward the end of the war in 1945.

In April, Thai Sen. Chaovarin Lathasaksiri announced that after a five-year search he had discovered evidence of the riches, believed by some to include 2,500 tons of gold and prewar U.S. Federal Reserve bonds with a total face value of $25 billion.

The treasure, however, was not found despite a hunt by a 60-member official team, comprised of army troops and experts, who drilled through blocked portions of the cave in an operation witnessed by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Nagase told the controversial senator that the hunt for the treasure, which Chaovarin claimed could save his country from its economic woes, was a waste of time and effort.

“The Japanese army here did not have any riches,” Nagase said confidently. “How could the retreating army, which was so preoccupied with its own affairs, carry such a huge treasure?

“One possibility is that local residents who saw retreating Japanese soldiers stowing their weapons away in the cave misunderstood what they witnessed as booty being hidden,” he said.

Nagase said he had also hoped to meet an elderly female resident in the area who had reportedly said her wartime lover, a Japanese soldier, had committed hara-kiri there.

“But just before my arrival she was hospitalized in a medical center 150 km away due to some abdominal malady,” he said. “I hope to see her recovered from the illness by the time of my next trip to this country.”

Nagase aims to have a Buddhist statue built if it is established that Japanese soldiers’ remains are in the area.

Not only has the octogenarian volunteer helped build memorials to the war dead and temples in various places in Thailand, but he has also established a scholarship fund for the country’s children.

“There are still places where the remains of Japanese soldiers have been left unheeded,” Nagase said. “Our government must make more efforts in collecting those remains.”

With hands together in prayer, he and his wife recited a Buddhist sutra in front of the jungle cave, figuring there must be soldiers’ remains somewhere nearby.

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