Mystery deepens over human bones used as teaching aids at schools in Japan


The mystery over the recently discovered use of real human bones as skeleton models at schools has continued to deepen.

How the real bones were procured is unknown in most cases, as no precise records exist.

People familiar with the matter say that the bones seem to have been purchased or donated long ago. But how they ended up in the hands of the schools largely remains a mystery.

According to prefectural education boards, human bones have been discovered so far at 16 schools in six prefectures: Ishikawa, Fukui, Aichi, Oita, Miyazaki and Kagoshima.

The first case was at Tsurumaru High School in Kagoshima Prefecture, where a real skull was found in a specimen cabinet in a biology lecture room in July 2016. It turned out to be from a woman who is believed to have died some 50 years before.

This prompted investigations by prefectural education boards in many parts of the country, leading to similar discoveries at other schools.

In many cases, human bones were used in biology classes, while Konan High School in Kagoshima Prefecture used them as drawing models in art classes. A Miyazaki prefectural school for the visually impaired used them in manual therapy classes for those training to be nationally certified massage practitioners.

Skeleton models made of real human bones “were procured from India and sold to university hospitals and elsewhere until around the Showa 40s” (1965 to 1974), said an official from a producer of medical study materials.

A record for one such model at Toryo High School in Aichi Prefecture said it was “bought in the 47th year of Showa” (1972).

In the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912), dissection experiments were conducted at various medical institutions using the bodies of people without relatives, with the cadavers provided by hospitals, according to Tatsuo Sakai, professor at Juntendo University’s faculty of medicine.

Skeleton models were made from the bodies for educational purposes, he said.

In the middle of the Meiji Era, many medical institutions were scrapped due to financial difficulties. Skeleton models may have then been donated to local schools, according to Sakai.

Many of the schools where human bones were discovered are traditional institutes dating back to the pre-World War II period.

Among them is Takefu High School in Fukui Prefecture. According to the prefectural education committee, a real skull found at the school is believed to have been kept since the Meiji Era.

At Takada High School in Oita Prefecture, a skull was kept in a wooden box on which a person’s name was written along with a note saying that it was donated in the Showa 10s (1935 to 1944).

But at many other schools, details of how the bones were procured are unknown.

According to Sakai and others, the possession of skeleton models that were legally made of real bones does not constitute a crime.

An education ministry official called for reporting suspicious bones to local educational boards or police.