Tokyo Tidbit: A Gruesome Bone Business

520,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Philippines during World War II. In 1957, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor launched a project to collect their remains and enshrine them at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery for the unidentified war dead in Tokyo.

In the early years, remains of about 10,000 soldiers were repatriated annually, though the numbers began to dwindle after a while. Throughout, ministry staff carefully witnessed the process. By 2005—60 years after the war—150,000 remains had been repatriated, but that year, collection efforts produced only 24 remains.

In 2006, the ministry outsourced the work. The numbers began to pick up: 45 in 2006, 161 in 2007, and 1,230 in 2008. The growth pattern confirmed once again the superior efficiency of the private sector. Satisfied, ministry staff stopped witnessing the collection process and instead relied on appraisals of local specialists.

Exponential growth continued: 7,740 in 2009 and 6,289 during the first nine months of 2010, on pace to set another record. All remains had certificates issued by the Philippine government.

But families of the war dead started questioning the validity of the process, and a few investigated on their own. What they found horrified them. For example, some of the remains came from areas that were far from any battlefield. Then locals complained that bones of their ancestors had been dug up from a cemetery near a search site and had been sold as Japanese bones.

The “bone business” alarmed the ministry. It ceased all collection efforts in October 2010 and dispatched a team of forensic anthropologists who investigated the situation and performed DNA tests on about 1,000 remains waiting to be sent to Japan. Their findings were gruesome. Many of the remains were those of women and children. Quite a few were much more recent than World War II. And about half had DNA of a type that is very common in Filipinos.

Fiasco. The ministry apologized and promised that it would use scientific methods to identify any further remains. Of those repatriated in 2009 and 2010, about 4,500 were already enshrined at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery and—in a very unusual action—had to be moved back to the morgue at the ministry. They remain there today, in limbo, so to speak, along with the rest of the questionable remains. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is negotiating with the Philippine government over new procedures. And the bones that are likely those of Filipinos will be returned to the Philippines.

Governmental outsourcing once again created an industry, the bone business. But there are victims: the families of the deceased in both countries. And of course, ultimately, the tax payer.

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