The remains of some 15,000 Japanese soldiers who died in the Philippines during World War II continue to lie in undignified government storage after the media raised suspicions five years ago that the bones include those of local residents obtained by profiteering grave robbers.

The remains were repatriated to Japan from fiscal 2008 and 2010, and were temporarily placed in a room in a government high-rise in Tokyo’s Kazumigaseki district.

In 2010, media reports said handsome commissions offered to Filipino villagers may have enticed some people to raid local graves and pass off the remains as those of Japanese who died there in World War II. The collection effort began in 1952.

Members of the public complained and later that year the ministry moved about 4,500 sets of remains that had already been interred in the Chidorigafuchi cemetery back to the ministry mortuary, according to a ministry official.

The number of sets of remains held there grew to 15,219. The intention is to enshrine them in the cemetery for unidentified war dead, but that plan can’t go ahead while doubt persists.

“We thought it would be uncomfortable for bereaved families, because we thought some of them may feel unease when they visit the cemetery,” the official said. “So we moved them back to the mortuary.”

One such incident of misidentification was reported on Mindoro Island in late 2010. Japanese and local media reported that locals seized three men after allegedly finding them in possession of a large number of human bones.

The remains of more than 1,000 bodies from cave graves at 100 locations were found to have been stolen, according to a ministry document in October 2011 that cited the news reports.

The reports quoted two of the men as acknowledging they stole the bones for the purpose of selling them to “someone collecting bones.”

In response to the concerns, the ministry in Oct. 2010 suspended the collections and initiated an on-site investigation.

However, it concluded that none of the remains in the mortuary are those of local people after the investigation failed to confirm that the alleged theft on Mindoro actually happened or that an affidavit submitted by locals vouching for the authenticity of the remains was in any way false.

While that represents the ministry’s position today, niggling doubt has kept the government from moving the remains to the cemetery, the ministry official said.

The government is currently negotiating the restart of collections with the Philippines government, and the ministry hopes to begin discussing enshrining the bones at the cemetery.

“Our hope is that the suspicion will soon dissipate,” he added.

Whenever bodies are accompanied with clues to their identities, efforts are usually made to return the remains to the families. But with the passage of time, bones discovered in the Philippines have tended to be less identifiable, and it is now difficult to confirm whether they are those of Japanese soldiers.

Of the 2.4 million Japanese troops killed overseas, the remains of 1.13 million have yet to be repatriated. It is thought that 520,000 died in the Philippines, and the remains of 370,000 are still there, the largest figure by geographical area.

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