Photo/IllutrationRyosen Kojima, the head priest of Tosenji temple, stands in front of the grave for unidentified individuals that overlooks the Sea of Japan. (Haruna Ishikawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

OGA, Akita Prefecture--As the head priest of Tosenji temple here, Ryosen Kojima pays no heed to nationality when he offers prayers for the deceased.

But this year, he has been chanting Buddhist funeral sutras perhaps for more non-Japanese than he has ever done.

"There has never been a year like this with so many unidentified remains," Kojima, 62, said. "I wonder what is going on."

The answer lies in the fact that Oga juts out into the Sea of Japan, where in normal years only a small number of bodies wash ashore that are never identified.

This year has been exceptional, however, as the number of dead presumed to be fishermen from North Korea has been off the charts.

The Japan Coast Guard said that as of Dec. 28 a total of 103 wooden boats believed to have originated in North Korea had drifted ashore in Japan or were found floating in its territorial waters, with 35 lifeless bodies.

City authorities asked the temple to temporarily accept the remains of the unidentified dead, which is why Kojima has been so busy.

In recent weeks, two separate cases led to the discovery of remains on wooden boats that drifted ashore. On Nov. 26, eight bodies were found on a boat, partly skeletal. Two more bodies were found Dec. 7 in a different location.

So far this year, 13 bodies that remain unidentified have been found on the shores of Oga.

Kojima's father, then the temple's chief priest, started the practice of offering prayers for the nameless dead in 1960 or so at the behest of the city government, which cremates the bodies.

The remains are stored temporarily in urns at Tosenji. But unlike ordinary urns that contain the posthumous Buddhist names of the deceased, these ones are blank.

Kojima chants sutras every day at the temple's main hall for those whose names will likely never be known.

"My feelings when praying for the dead are the same, whether the individual is Japanese or not," Kojima said.

According to the Oga social welfare office, there has been only one instance in which remains were returned to North Korea.

That was in 2013 after the city received a request passed on via the Japanese Red Cross Society, which had been contacted by its North Korean counterpart. The remains were turned over to an official from the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), which acted as the representative for the North Korean Red Cross.

With the spate of recent reports about wooden boats drifting ashore in Japan, Kojima said he has begun thinking about the lives of those found dead in Oga.

"I felt pity for them because they likely had families, but still had to go fishing in such flimsy boats," Kojima said. "I think the best way is to have them buried under the practices of the religion they believed in."

But in the case of the remains kept at Tosenji, after a year passes, those that are not claimed are interred in a grave for the unknown on a hilly area of Oga overlooking the Sea of Japan.