A group of former Japanese residents of what is now North Korea visited Friday a site in the east of the country believed to contain the remains of some 1,600 Japanese soldiers and civilians.
A nine-member delegation of the Kita Izoku Renraku Kai group prayed for those buried at the hilltop site in Hamhung, lighting incense sticks and offering fruits, liquor and sweets in front of a mound accommodating the remains.
The aim of the group is to retrieve the ashes of relatives who died in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula around the end of World War II.
Jo Hui Sung, director of the Institute of History at North Korea's Academy of Social Sciences and leading researcher in the Japanese remains issue, said the area used to be a housing complex for chemical factory workers, and that Soviet troops used it as a camp for Japanese prisoners of war and civilians after Japan's defeat in World War II in August 1945.
The 1,600 people are believed to have died of hunger or infectious diseases such as typhus fever in a hospital, which was located below the burial site, now a corn field, Jo said.
Makiko Taniguchi, 74, from Kagoshima Prefecture, whose sister Hideko Beppu and brother Tatehiko died near the burial site when they were 5 years old and 9 months old, respectively, placed a wooden stick bearing their names and a picture of their mother, who died about eight years ago.
"Today is a funeral day for my siblings. When they died here, we didn't have incense sticks or candles," Taniguchi told reporters. "I want my mom to embrace my brother and sister in her arms."
"To me, war had not been over until I came to the place where my siblings are buried," Taniguchi said. "I would like to come back here again."
Yaeko Azeta, 69, from Chiba Prefecture, who was repatriated to Japan when she was 1 year old, and her brother Takashi Fukushima, 78, from Kumamoto Prefecture mourned their father Hisato.
"Dad, I'm here," she said, standing in front of a Buddhist memorial tablet dedicated to her father that was brought from Japan.
"Now I feel I have returned home," said Azeta, who was born in Chongjin in northeastern North Korea.
Ikuo Kimura, 78, whose brother Waichiro died at the Hamhung hospital, said those buried in the corn field "must have died in agony, wishing for their return to Japan." He said he hopes the deceased "rest in peace."
Satoru Imamura, 79, together with his sister Yoshiko, 73, was mourning his father Mitsuo and mother Chika who died in Hamhung.
He called on Japan and North Korea, which do not have diplomatic relations, to give priority to the remains issue on humanitarian grounds.
Fukushima urged the two countries to organize the repatriation of the Japanese remains as soon as possible as he believes the presence of the bones "causes trouble" to local residents.
The visit by Japanese repatriates is the fifth of its kind since North Korea allowed a tour last August to study burial sites on humanitarian grounds.
All group members have visited the burial sites in North Korea on their 12-day trip to the country through next Tuesday.
The purpose of the mission is to study sites believed to hold the remains of Japanese nationals in preparation for their possible repatriation to Japan.
According to Japanese government data, about 34,600 Japanese are believed to have died of hunger and disease during the final phase of World War II in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.
The remains of 13,000 people have already been repatriated to Japan.
The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945.