In the corner of a cemetery near the central part of the city of Kagoshima stands an independent ossuary. The charnel house, administered by the Kagoshima Municipal Government, is home to unidentified people who lost their lives in the bombings of the city during World War II. But few people know that among those laid to rest there are crewmen of a North Korean spy ship that sank off the coast in 2001.
Between March and August 1945, the city was hit by eight air raids that left more than 3,300 people dead. The remains of the unidentified victims of the bombings were laid to rest at the ossuary, which is periodically cleaned and decorated with flowers by residents appointed by the city.
It was in December 2001 when Kagoshima once again found itself in peril when a North Korean spy vessel entered Japan’s territorial waters in the East China Sea and sank there.
Toshimi Shiratake from Nagasaki, 64, who was then chief navigator of the patrol vessel Inasa that exchanged gunfire with the North Korean vessel, vividly remembers the crew aboard the ship.
“They looked brawny and seemed composed the whole time,” Shiratake said. “My intuition told me they were trained professionals.”
The North Korean crewmen ignored orders and warning shots from the Japan Coast Guard to stop and threw away what looked like articles of evidence. The vessel later caught fire but the crew managed to skillfully put out the blaze.
After a nine-hour chase, the North Korean crewmen retaliated by firing rounds from automatic rifles and rocket launchers, and the vessel later was engulfed by an explosion and sank.
Shiratake recalls having seen about a dozen men floating in the water right after the spy ship sank.
Fearing a possible counterattack from the sea surface, the patrol vessel crew threw life buoys but they soon disappeared in the waves.
The 10th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Kagoshima strongly suspected the men of being involved in smuggling stimulants.
The Coast Guard retrieved four bodies and the skeletal remains of four other people. Autopsies showed that there is an extremely high possibility that at least seven of the deceased men were from North Korea or South Korea. The investigators also concluded that at least 10 people were on board the North Korean spy ship.
Based on the act that covers the treatment of those who die during a journey, which applied in this case as the people were not recognized as Japanese citizens, the Kagoshima Municipal Government cremated the bodies and bones of the Korean vessel crewmen given that no one showed up to claim the remains. Their remains were treated the same way as unidentified homeless people who die in the city of Kagoshima.
It is believed the government sounded out North Korea to see if they could retrieve the remains. But according to the Japan Coast Guard, “the deal likely fell through” as the government was reluctant to further investigate the incident out of concern that it may hinder Tokyo’s efforts to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.
The remains stored in the ossuary, alongside those of the victims of the Kagoshima air raids, also belong to people without kin who died in the city, as well as others who were buried there before the war and had no one to tend their graves. The city decided to bury the bodies of the North Korean vessel crewmen there, but the local authorities won’t openly disclose the exact place where their remains are buried to avoid any unexpected situations.
Many residents in Kagoshima visit the cemetery on a daily basis, and in late July some were visiting to offer flowers and burn incense sticks. But few come to the ossuary to pray.
When told about the North Korean vessel crew members laid to rest there, most passers-by said they had never heard of that before.
Reactions to the revelation varied.
“I’m opposed to burying them at the same place as the air bomb victims,” a 64-year-old housewife said with a grimace.
A 28-year-old man responded in a more positive way.
“Maybe commemorating them with respect could help improve the ties between Japan and the Koreas,” he said.
This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published on Aug. 14.