Japan to use database, expanded DNA tests to speed identification of war dead

Japan to use database, expanded DNA tests to speed identification of war dead
Japanese soldiers marching in front of the General Post Office in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation.

The government will soon create a database of DNA information gleaned from the remains of about 7,000 Japanese who died during and after World War II, in a bid to accelerate work to identify them and return their remains to their families.

The new system will be able to handle a wide range of inquiries from bereaved families, and relatives in some cases will be asked to provide DNA samples to help find a match.

DNA tests on such remains have so far been restricted to cases in which identifiable personal items also were found nearby, but this has resulted in just 11 confirmed identifications of soldiers recovered from major battle sites. The government will soon start DNA tests even on remains with no accompanying belongings, in an attempt to return them to their families at a time when surviving relatives are becoming increasingly elderly.

"Even if no personal belongings have been retrieved, the government's role is to urge bereaved families to provide DNA samples for testing and to respond to their feelings," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Wednesday.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will oversee the DNA testing operations. It will soon begin work on the database and may invite bereaved families to make inquiries about their fallen relatives before the end of the current fiscal year.

The database is expected to contain information on about 7,000 people who died on major battlegrounds during the war and in areas where Japanese were interned after the war, including the former Soviet Union.

In 2003, the ministry began conducting DNA tests on the remains of Japanese war dead. However, these tests were conducted in limited cases, such as when belongings that could help identify the owner had also been found, including a personal seal or a fountain pen inscribed with a name.

"This was to reduce as much as possible the possibility of a mistaken identification," an official of the ministry's Social Welfare and War Victims' Relief Bureau said. "There were also privacy concerns regarding the handling of DNA information from many bereaved relatives."

However, there were only a handful of cases in which belongings that could help identify a fallen soldier were found in areas where fierce fighting raged. Since the government began considering conducting DNA tests in fiscal 1999, it has collected the remains of about 28,000 people from various battlegrounds.

Of these, it obtained samples such as teeth that could be tested for DNA from 1,133 people, but only 61 were actually tested. Ultimately, just 11 of these soldiers were positively identified.

In Okinawa Prefecture, where the fighting killed many residents in addition to soldiers and civilian employees of the military, testable samples were recovered from the remains of 106 people, but only four have been identified. Amid a deluge of calls from bereaved families for DNA tests to be conducted even if personal belongings were not available, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly last year called on the central government to relax the conditions under which such tests could be carried out.

In addition to setting up the database, the ministry will examine personnel documents of the now-defunct Imperial Japanese Army. After considering where remains were found, the ministry will extrapolate which bereaved families are likely to have a close connection to the remains. These families will be asked to provide DNA information, such as mucus from the mouth. The results will be compared with information in the database in a bid to pinpoint the identity of the remains.

Progress has been somewhat faster in work to identify the remains of Japanese who died in internment camps in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Since fiscal 1999, samples from 7,085 people have been recovered from the remains of about 10,000 people. As of March this year, the identities of 990 of these remains had been confirmed.

The ministry plans to include DNA information on the remaining 6,000 or so remains in the database as it seeks to speed up the identification process.Speech

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