Strengthen DNA analysis to accelerate identification

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has established a new facility in Tokyo dedicated to DNA analysis of the remains of World War II dead. As many remains as possible must be identified and returned to the bereaved families.

DNA analysis of casualties of World War II began in 2003 and, so far, the remains of about 1,200 have been identified. University forensic pathologists and others have been conducting the DNA identification, but the workload has been heavy because it has been done outside of their regular jobs and has taken time.

About 5,000 specimens taken from recovered remains are waiting for DNA analysis. With the establishment of the new facility, the ministry aims to increase the analyses conducted by 50% from the about 2,400 cases between fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2021.

It represents a step forward that the government has begun to strengthen the analysis system by establishing the facility. Families still think of war dead who are buried overseas. The analysis process must be accelerated to fulfill the hopes of the bereaved families, who are aging.

Of the about 2.4 million Japanese war dead killed overseas in World War II, the remains of about 1.12 million have not returned home.

The overseas dispatch of missions to recover remains was suspended due to the novel coronavirus pandemic but has now been gradually resumed in the Pacific region, including the island of Saipan. If the number of specimens increases in the future, further strengthening of the analysis system should be considered.

An incident occurred in 2019 in which a government recovery team mistakenly brought back remains that were believed to belong to foreign nationals. To prevent such an incident from happening again, accurate analysis of remains must be conducted.

In addition to remains, many families of war dead find value in their belongings as “proof of life” and wish to keep such items with them.

Soldiers who went to war often left home with Japanese flags bearing messages from their families and acquaintances, and belts stitched in red by many women. Some U.S. soldiers and others took these articles home with them and kept them.

A private organization in the United States is working to return such items, but it is not easy to identify the owners. The ministry, which has information on the war dead, should act as a bridge between private organizations and the bereaved families and contribute to the return of these items.

Military service certificates, which record the history of the deceased after their enlistment in the former Japanese army and navy, are also important records for the bereaved families. An increasing number of people are said to be requesting the issuance of such certificates as part of the process of creating family histories.

Military service certificates are issued by prefectural governments, and some prefectures restrict applicants to within a third degree of kinship to the person in question, on the grounds of protecting personal information. Hokkaido has expanded the scope from a third to a sixth degree of kinship, in response to a noticeable increase in inquiries from distant relatives.

Other prefectures should also be flexible in responding to applications.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 10, 2022)