TOKYO – The Japanese government intends to expand DNA tests conducted on the remains of war dead to include leg and arm bones, in a bid to identify more Japanese victims of World War II, according to sources.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry thus far had restricted such tests to teeth. However, in response to growing calls from bereaved families to widen the scope of the tests, the ministry plans to include thigh, arm and other bones in its DNA appraisals, the sources said.
DNA tests using bones from hands and feet are common in the United States and South Korea.
At least several hundred sets of remains with no teeth are recovered each year, meaning the expanded tests will increase the potential for identifying these remains.
The ministry started DNA tests on the remains of the war dead in 2003. The tests were conducted on teeth covered in hard enamel, from which it is easy to extract nuclear DNA that can identify an individual even after many years. Arm and leg bones were excluded for reasons including the low probability of getting a sample of this DNA.
However, in places that were the site of ferocious battles, such as Okinawa, many remains have been found without heads. This prompted many bereaved families to push the ministry to adopt testing involving arm and leg bones, as is done in other countries.
After touring a DNA testing facility in the U.S., the ministry decided to hear the opinion of a panel of DNA experts as soon as this year and then will make a final decision on the tests.
The United States successfully extracted nuclear DNA from about 50 percent of the arm and leg bones that it tested, the ministry said.
According to the ministry, about 2.4 million Japanese military personnel and civilian employees of the military died in Okinawa and overseas during the war. The remains of about 1.27 million have been collected so far. The remains of about 540,000 unidentified war dead have been laid to rest, but most were incinerated and DNA samples cannot be taken from them.
In recent years, the remains of more than 2,000 war dead have been recovered. Of them, several hundred sets of remains found each year had no teeth. In preparation for the expansion of the testing program, the ministry has stored — instead of incinerating — 55 sets of remains found since July.