• Kyodo

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A Japanese group on Sunday visited the graves of relatives who died in what is now North Korea during the chaos at the end of World War II.

“I could finally come,” said Yasuko Irie, 73, holding a family photo and making an offering of rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture where her deceased father, Minoru, hailed from. “I wanted to come while my mother was still alive but I think they have met in heaven.”

Irie and others visited burial sites at the Ryongsan cemetery in Pyongyang after receiving approval last month for the visit from North Korea, which has no diplomatic relations with Japan. The group arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday and will stay there until next Tuesday.

Yasuo Nagashima, 78, who was visiting North Korea for the second time to offer prayers for an elder sister who died in 1946, said: “I hope there will be a way where bereaved families can visit the graves numerous times.”

Nagashima, who spent about a year in the chaotic aftermath of the war in camps such as a school gymnasium in Pyongyang, said he remembers his mother pushing a cart bearing the body, covered in straw, of his sister Yukiko, who died at the age of 17 in the spring of 1946. His father also went missing after being drafted into military service.

Masumi Arai, 76, who was at her 3-year-old brother’s side when he passed away, said: “My mother was hospitalized so I took care of my brother. Since it was winter, it was just very cold and frightening.

“My brother died without knowing why he was dying. I hope there would never be a war,” Arai said.

Naoko Watanabe, 57, mourned for her aunt Toshiko who died at age 2. Watanabe said she has always felt the pain of her father and grandfather who returned to Japan without Toshiko.

“Please rest in peace,” Watanabe said in tears.

Japanese family members have been traveling to North Korea since 2012, after North Korea agreed with the Japanese government to let bereaved families and relatives in Japan visit the sites in an apparent move to improve relations.

An estimated 34,600 Japanese are believed to have died of hunger or disease around the end of the war in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945.

According to 83-year-old returnee Tomoya Sato, who heads the group, more than 2,400 Japanese were buried at Ryongsan cemetery.

While there is a list of those buried there and a map of the locations of the burial sites, an individual’s burial site cannot be known with certainty due to relocations related to urban development, according to Sato.

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