Naoki Mizuno, a Kyoto University professor, is hoping to shed light on the Japanese who died in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula around the end of World War II and remain buried there.

“The issue is a result of Japan’s (colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula) and wars of aggression,” he said. “It is one of the important postwar issues that Japan should deal with.”

Regarding the many soldiers believed to be among the dead, Mizuno said, “the Japanese government has a clear responsibility and duty to investigate their whereabouts.”

As a professor at Kyoto University’s Institute for Research in Humanities, Mizuno specializes in modern history of the Korean Peninsula, concentrating on the period from 1910 to 1945 when it was under Japanese rule.

From late August to early September, he visited not only Pyongyang but also rural areas across North Korea to study burial sites believed to contain Japanese remains, based on information from documents he has collected from people who resettled in Japan after the war.

“It was a tragedy for the Japanese people in the final stage when they were about to leave the Korean Peninsula or Manchuria (in China) after Japan was defeated,” Mizuno said.

About 34,600 Japanese soldiers and civilians are believed to have died of hunger or illness in what is now North Korea, and the remains of an estimated 21,600 people have yet to be recovered.

There are believed to be about 70 mass graves in North Korea, but Mizuno says there are probably many smaller sites.

Over the past five years, Mizuno has collected notes and records written by Japanese who resettled in Japan. Since many were privately printed, he searched for them in secondhand bookstores or directly contacted the writers.

North Korea, meanwhile, has allowed Japanese people to visit the country since August 2012 to offer prayers for their relatives buried there.

It was around that time when Mizuno was asked by a citizens’ group to actually go to North Korea and do some solid research on burial sites.

“I accepted because I thought we need to unfold the history behind this issue,” which has hardly been talked about in Japan, Mizuno said.

A native of Kyoto, Mizuno decided to be a researcher because he wanted to look into Japanese history in light of its relations with China and the Koreas.

“We can see things in a different way from how we think when we only stay inside Japan,” he said.

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