Ashes of Hideki Tojo, Japan’s Wartime Leader, Were Secretly Scattered at Sea – The Foreigners magazine In tokyo
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Ashes of Hideki Tojo, Japan’s Wartime Leader, Were Secretly Scattered at Sea

Written by on June 16, 2021

For more than 70 years, the location of the remains of Hideki Tojo, the Japanese prime minister who led his country’s war effort during World War II, had been an enduring mystery.

A great-grandson of Tojo said he had always believed that only the hair and nails of his ancestor were buried in a family plot in northwest Tokyo. He had no idea where the rest of the remains were. But the answer had been hidden in plain sight.

Declassified documents in the U.S. national archives that were unearthed by a Japanese professor show that American military officials scattered Tojo’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean shortly after his execution as a Class A war criminal.

The disposal was intended to prevent Japanese nationalists from gaining access to the remains and treating Tojo — who was convicted of war crimes by an international military tribunal — as a martyr.

It is unclear exactly when the documents uncovered by Hiroaki Takazawa, a professor specializing in war tribunal issues at Nihon University in Japan, were declassified. But the discovery has vaulted Tojo into the public consciousness again, stirring up wartime memories among some in Japan and, his great-grandson said, bringing a sense of relief to his family.

Professor Takazawa said he had come across the documents “by chance” while doing research on war criminals. He first read the documents in 2018 at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland, and spent years verifying and evaluating them.

“I was not surprised, because I had heard ‘rumors’ that their ashes had been scattered in the sea,” Professor Takazawa wrote by email, referring to Tojo and six other war criminals executed on Dec. 23, 1948. He photographed the documents with his iPad, and he revealed them in interviews with Japanese news outlets this month.

Under Tojo’s dictatorial rule, millions of civilians and prisoners of war suffered or died from experiments, starvation and forced labor. After the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to declare defeat in 1945, Tojo attempted suicide at his home in Tokyo and was captured moments later. He was nursed back to health by U.S. Army doctors.

Shortly after Tojo and the other convicted war criminals were hanged in December 1948, the American military began a tense mission to dispose of their ashes. The effort was conducted behind locked doors and with armed guards, all to prevent the war criminals’ remains from being salvaged by supporters.

The documents provide a detailed account of the “execution and final disposition.” The bodies were identified and fingerprinted before being placed in wooden coffins that were nailed shut and taken by cargo truck to Yokohama, 22 miles south of Tokyo. There, they were cremated. The documents said that “special precaution was taken to preclude overlooking even the smallest particle of remains.”

In one document, dated Dec. 23, 1948, and stamped “secret,” a U.S. Army major named Luther Frierson wrote, “I certify that I received the remains, supervised cremation, and personally scattered the ashes of the following executed war criminals at sea from an Eighth Army liaison plane.”

Major Frierson scattered the ashes “over a wide area”: approximately 30 miles of the Pacific Ocean east of Yokohama.

David L. Howell, a professor of Japanese history at Harvard University, said that by releasing the ashes into the ocean, U.S. forces had most likely contravened their own rules. He cited a 1947 manual that said remains should be buried or given to the next of kin, when possible, after military executions.

He said that it was “faulty logic” for the American authorities to believe that disposing of Tojo’s remains would prevent him from being deified by sympathizers and nationalists, many of whom continue to perceive Japan’s wartime efforts as mere acts of self-defense.

“I don’t think having control over the physical remains prevents that,” said Professor Howell, who noted that there had been attempts to rehabilitate Tojo and other wartime figures among some right-wing groups in Japan.

In the end, the secret scattering of the ashes failed to prevent Tojo from being memorialized: He and 13 other Class A war criminals are commemorated at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors millions of Japanese war dead.

William Marotti, an associate professor of Japanese history at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that there had been a broader shift to the right in Japan and an attempt by some to revise parts of the country’s history. These debates, he said, continued to “perturb the relationship between Japan and its neighbors, among other things.”

Professor Takazawa said the reaction to his discovery had been overwhelming.

“Some people have expressed sympathy for Tojo and the others whose remains were scattered. Others show respect for the U.S. government for keeping these materials in the National Archives and Records Administration instead of destroying them,” he wrote. He compared that to the destruction of official records in Japan, which often makes it difficult to shed light on government actions.

Hidetoshi Tojo, 48, a great-grandson of Tojo, said in an interview on Tuesday that Professor Takazawa’s revelations had put his family mystery to rest. He had always thought that some of his ancestor’s remains were buried in Ikebukuro, in northwestern Tokyo. But he had also considered the possibility that Tojo’s remains had been scattered into the ocean, given rumors that had circulated in Japan.

“My great-grandfather said that history will always land in the right place,” Mr. Tojo said, without expressing his own view of his ancestor’s place in history. “Now finally, after 75 years, I feel all right speaking my Tojo name aloud. This taboo has changed over the years.”

He said he was glad that his great-grandfather had been “returned to nature.”

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