Until recently, the location of executed Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo’s remains was one of World War II’s biggest mysteries in the nation he once led. Now, a Japanese university professor has revealed declassified US military documents that appear to hold the answer.
The documents show the cremated ashes of Tojo, one of the masterminds of the Pearl Harbor attack, were scattered from a US Army aircraft over the Pacific Ocean about 50km east of Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city.
It was a tension-filled, highly secretive mission, with US officials taking extreme steps to keep Tojo’s remains, and those of six others executed with him, away from ultra-nationalists looking to glorify them as martyrs.
An image provided by the US National Archives shows one of documents on the handling of the remains of seven Japanese war criminals. Photo: US National Archives via AP
The seven were hanged for war crimes just before Christmas 1948, three years after Japan’s defeat.
The discovery brings partial closure to a painful chapter of Japanese history that still plays out today, as conservative Japanese politicians attempt to whitewash history, leading to friction with China and South Korea.
After years spent verifying and checking details, and evaluating the significance of what he had found, Nihon University professor Hiroaki Takazawa released the clues to the remains’ location last week.
He came across the declassified documents in 2018 at the US National Archives in Washington.
It is believed to be the first time official documents showing the handling of the seven war criminals’ remains had been made public, according to the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies and the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records.
Hidetoshi Tojo, the former prime minister’s great-grandson, told The Associated Press that the absence of the remains has long been a humiliation for the bereaved families, but he is relieved that the information has come to light.
“If his remains were at least scattered in Japanese territorial waters ... I think he was still somewhat fortunate,” Hidetoshi Tojo said.
“I want to invite my friends and lay flowers to pay tribute to him” if further details about the remains’ location becomes available, he said.
Hideki Tojo is a complicated figure, revered by some conservatives as a patriot, but loathed by many in the West for prolonging World War II, which ended only after the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
About a month after Aug. 15, 1945, when then-Japanese emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s defeat to a stunned nation, Hideki Tojo shot himself in a failed suicide attempt as he was about to be arrested at his modest home in Tokyo.
Takazawa found the documents during research at the US archives into other war crimes trials. The documents are valuable because they officially detail previously little-known facts about what happened and provide a rough location of where the ashes were scattered, he said.
He plans to continue research into other executions. More than 4,000 people were convicted of war crimes in other international tribunals and about 920 of them were executed.
Twenty-five were convicted, including 16 sentenced to life in prison, with two getting shorter prison terms. Two others died while on trial and one case was dropped.
In one of the documents — dated Dec. 23, 1948, and carrying a “secret” stamp — then-US Army major 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.”
The entire operation was tense, with US officials extremely careful about not leaving a single speck of ashes behind, apparently to prevent them from being stolen by admiring ultra-nationalists, Takazawa said.
“In addition to their attempt to prevent the remains from being glorified, I think the US military was adamant about not letting the remains return to Japanese territory ... as an ultimate humiliation,” he said.
The documents state that when the cremation was completed, the ovens were “cleared of the remains in their entirety.”
“Special precaution was taken to preclude overlooking even the smallest particles of remains,” Frierson wrote.
Today, even without the ashes, bereaved families and conservative Japanese lawmakers regularly pay tribute at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where the executed war criminals are enshrined with 2.5 million war dead considered “sacred spirits.” No remains are enshrined at Yasukuni.
After the seven executed war criminals were enshrined there in 1978, Yasukuni has become a flashpoint between Japan and China and South Korea, who see the enshrinement as proof of Japan’s lack of remorse over its wartime aggression.
Hidetoshi Tojo said that his great-grandfather was consistently made a taboo in postwar Japan, never glorified.
“Everything about my great-grandfather was sealed, including his speeches. Taking that into consideration, I think not preserving the remains was part of the occupation policy,” he said. “I hope to see further revelations about the unknown facts of the past.”