The MIA search, also known as "the dig," takes place each year in the beginning of
February in southern Okinawa. In 1997, they came from Hokkaido to Kyushyu, over 200
Shintos, with over 20 Americans who work or live on Okinawa.
A different area on Okinawa is selected to work in each year, a decision made from information gathered from war survivor accounts and old records. Over a dozen groups of volunteers scattered along the coastline of Mabuni Hill, where monuments now sit in "Peace Memorial Park" as a remembrance of the war dead.
Akihiro Yoshiki, the Head Minister of Konko Church of Fukuoka on mainland Japan, is
the boss of the search, as well as the originator.
"We had about 300 people help out in 1976, the first year," Yoshiki said, "and we found many bodies. The number of bodies found each year goes down, but that does not mean we will stop."
Another organizer, Kazuhisa "Kazu" Hashimoto, hails from Kyushyu and noted that 1997
was his twelfth year on the MIA search.
"We come for three days each year. The first day we hold an opening ceremony and set up the command center (headquarters), where the bones are washed and cleaned. The second and third days are spent on the actual search and digging," he explained. "At the end of the third day we take the unidentified bones we have found and bury them in a memorial ceremony."
The search is long, hard and sometimes treacherous as volunteers tread through the undergrowth, hacking at the bushes and vines to make a trail. Colored ropes identify the trails as they wind up and down the hills and cliffs along the East China Sea. Volunteers look for caves, overhangs and any other areas that may hold remains.
"We try to think like the soldiers and people would have thought during the war," Kazu said. "We imagine where we would hide if we were injured or scared and that is where we usually find remains."
If the group is lucky, they will find a complete set of remains (bones) and sometimes personal items that will help identify them.
"Once we find something with a name on it, we try to locate the family to return that item to them. More than once, we have had the family come with us the next year to help in the search because of their gratitude in finding their relatives," Kazu added.
At the end of the search this year, 12 sets of full remains were found, two with personal items -- fountain pens.
"One has a full name, Tsughuhide Touma," Kazu said. "The other has just the last name, Ura, which may make it easier to find their families."
Dirty, hungry and tired, the Shintos, Americans and other Japanese felt they made a
When asked how long the MIA searches will go on, Kazu shrugged his shoulders, "We'll keep coming back until we stop finding bones."
A two-hour memorial ceremony held late on February 10, 1997 assured that the souls of those who were found would be put to rest. Amid chanting, singing, and many prayers, one could feel peace surround the volunteers as the ceremony progressed. Many had tears in their eyes, not of sadness, but of cheer that these souls would finally be laid to rest. They knew they would return next year and try to bring home other souls who have been forgotten for over 50 years.