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Remnants of war still buried in Japan

Hidden bombs, poison gas remain dangers the public must live with

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Residents in the western Tokyo suburb of Nishitokyo recently had a World War II flashback.

On July 10, an unexploded 1-ton bomb dropped in a U.S. air raid some 60 years ago was dug up by the Ground Self-Defense Force in the Higashifushimi district. An old woman living on the property said she remembered a bomb being out there, somewhere.

Roads were closed and about 7,000 residents evacuated before the 1.8-meter-long, 60-cm-diameter bomb was gingerly pulled out with a crane and defused.

“I never imagined such a thing could be found in the neighborhood,” said a 51-year-old woman who lives across the street from where the bomb sat for six decades.

People often think munitions are the last thing they would stumble upon in their own backyards. But bombs and other hazardous remnants from the war continue to surface and be removed nationwide. In fiscal 2004 alone, Defense Agency bomb squads defused 146 tons of explosives reported in some 2,600 cases. Anywhere from 1,600 to more than 3,000 cases are handled each year.

But bombs aren’t the only worrisome leftovers lurking below the surface. Old air-raid shelters and abandoned chemical weapons also pose a threat. The problem is that although the remnants of war are many, information on their locations is scant.

‘Please find the bomb’

Chichi Hoya, 84, sat silently at a community hall in Nishitokyo, one of eight designated places residents were asked to wait until the bomb was cleared from her field last month. She’d known about the bomb since 1949.

“I had long been worried,” she said. “I’m now relieved.”

When she married in 1949, her husband’s family told her that three bombs had landed in their field but didn’t explode. After the war, two were taken away by the U.S. forces. The third was left because it had burrowed too deep into the ground.

Hoya had asked the city to remove the bomb, but since it was not visible, she was told she had to provide confirmation of its existence and pinpoint its location — at her own expense.

Locating a buried bomb can be costly, and city officials tried to assure Hoya that it wouldn’t detonate as long as it was not touched.

But with her husband dead and herself well into her 80s, she felt it was time to act.

“I felt I couldn’t wait any longer because I didn’t want to pass the negative legacy onto younger generations,” Hoya said.

The area known today as Nishitokyo was targeted during the war because it was close to a military installation in adjacent Musashino, according to Nishitokyo official Noboru Hasegawa, who said dozens of unexploded bombs are still believed buried in the area.

Hasegawa said the chaos that would be created by tracking down every bomb rumor presents a bigger risk than a bomb actually going off.

“We cannot dig up every possible site,” Hasegawa said. “What if we get information that is false and we find nothing?”

While it is the job of the central and local governments to remove bombs, locating them is usually left to landowners. With financial support from the government, Nishitokyo paid about 25 million yen to get rid of the bomb in Hoya’s field.

Burying the problem

Bomb disposal, however, poses a heavy burden to many cash-strapped municipalities, which often prefer not to actively investigate bomb reports.

Similar problems are reported with abandoned air-raid shelters.

Four junior high school students died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in early April after building a bonfire in a defunct bomb shelter in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Afterward, the central and local governments conducted a probe to update their list of abandoned shelters because the municipality where the kids died hadn’t been aware of the shelter.

According to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, 3,265 more shelters were found in this survey, bringing the total to 8,268.

“It is difficult to find every bomb shelter and not miss any,” said Tetsuo Izumi, an official at the land ministry’s City and Regional Development Bureau. He said cities face several problems in tracking down old shelters.

First, there are few documents pinpointing the location of air-aid shelters, so municipalities have to get the majority of their information through questionnaires sent to residents. Thus many hidden shelters are never found.

It is also becoming harder to identify shelter entrances because many have been weathered to the point they are no longer recognizable.

And if a shelter is on private land, owners don’t often want that fact known because it might hurt the property value.

Municipalities have been working to fill in bomb shelters in danger of caving in, but as with munitions the costs are high.

Kanoya in Kagoshima Prefecture spent at least 35 million yen between 1998 and 2004 to fill in 26 bomb shelters. But even that is not enough.

“We cannot deal with all the bomb shelters due to budgetary restrictions,” a Kanoya official said.

Poison gas info scarce

Poison gas shells abandoned by the Japanese military are another threat.

In 2003, residents of Kamisu, Ibaraki Prefecture, became sick after drinking well water poisoned with arsenic. The government initially believed the well had been poisoned by chemical weapons, but it was later discovered that the arsenic had been encased in dumped concrete blocks that had deteriorated.

An Environment Ministry investigation launched after the Kamisu poisonings indicates chemical weapons may have been abandoned at 138 sites in 41 prefectures at the end of World War II. It has begun studying groundwater and soil at selected sites after prioritizing and confirming the information it receives.

“Witnesses have vague memories about the places where weapons were dumped,” so finding the areas and taking action is almost impossible, said Takako Kitamado, director of the Environment Ministry’s risk assessment office.

While cities struggle to remove remnants of the war, there is also a movement to use the sites to convey the horror of war to future generations.

According to the Japanese Network to Protect War-Related Sites, 101 sites nationwide, including a bomb shelter in Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture, are registered as cultural assets by central or local governments.

“We can learn from war facilities to remember the tragedy of the war and to reconfirm our pledge to never wage war again,” Shinji Shimamura of the group said, adding that the existence of unexploded bombs and air-raid shelters can be useful — though potentially deadly — reminders.

The Nishitokyo bomb disposal brought home to many residents, including those who didn’t experience the war, the horror of that time.

“I spoke to (my family and acquaintances) about the disposal of the bomb and learned that there was warplane factory in the area,” said Kana Sasaki, a 22-year-old resident of the city. “It impressed upon me the realities of the war.”