Photo/IllutrationBereaved families of a soldier receive a fountain pen from students on Aug. 15 in Iwamizawa, Hokkaido. (Hiroshi Fukasawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

IWAMIZAWA, Hokkaido--Seventy-three years after the end of World War II, a fountain pen belonging to a soldier who died in the Battle of Okinawa and a letter from his battalion commander finally were returned to his bereaved family here.

A group of students visited the home of farmer Satoru Sasaki, 59, where 12 people from six families gathered on Aug. 15.

To those present, the students presented the fountain pen of Takayoshi Sasaki, the youngest brother of Satoru’s grandfather, who was killed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa at age 26.

Yukiko Shiroyama, 89, Takayoshi’s niece who came here from Bibai in Hokkaido and received the fountain pen from the students, said she lived with Takayoshi before he went to the front.

“I was headstrong and shared many quarrels, but he was a really gentle person,” said Shiroyama with tears while firmly holding the pen.

The envelope from the battalion commander includes a letter detailing what happened to Takayoshi and crushed coral from Okinawa. Satoru said he wants to “put them in the grave featuring no bones or mementos to commemorate” Takayoshi. His remains were never returned to his relatives.

Takayoshi was called up for military service, and as a member of the 32nd infantry regiment of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 24th division, he was first sent to the Manchuria region in northeastern China and then to Okinawa.

Takayoshi died in the ground battle. Details of his death were unclear.

Maria Goto, 22, a senior at Toyo Eiwa University, and Akane Umehara, 19, a sophomore of Chuo University, who visited Satoru’s home on Japan's northernmost main island to return Takayoshi’s memento, are members of a student group called Mirai o Tsumugu Volunteer. The students recover soldiers’ bones and returns letters and possessions of those killed in the Battle of Okinawa to their bereaved families.

The pen, bearing the words “Sasaki” and “third company,” was discovered in a cave in Okinawa’s Itoman about 15 years ago.

Photographer Tetsuji Hamada, 55, and his wife, who work with the student group to retrieve and return remains and mementos of the war dead, examined the pen and found that the only Sasaki who died in the cavern is Takayoshi, who belonged to the third company of the 32nd infantry regiment’s first battalion.

Based on the finding, Hamada began searching for Takayoshi’s family.

But finding his relatives was difficult. That was because a letter written by the commander of the first battalion in 1946 to Takayoshi’s elder brother, Kiyomi, was returned to the sender as the recipient’s home was not on the written address.

Mirai o Tsumugu Volunteers, Hamada and his wife visited Bibai, Naie and Eniwa, all of which are in Hokkaido, because the letter was addressed to “Bibai-cho’s Chashinai.” They eventually identified Satoru on Aug. 14 and went to visit his family the following day.

Misao Miki, 67, a cousin of Satoru who lives in Ishikari, also in Hokkaido, was impressed by the students’ efforts.

“I was moved that young people did such a thing for us,” Miki said. “Today is Aug. 15. I feel this achievement is the result of many miracles. What a terrible thing war is.”

The voices of the two students who returned the letter was shaking with emotion as well.

“I am really happy that they appreciate it (returning the letter),” said Goto. “I want to continue recovering and returning remains of the war dead.”

MEMENTOS RETURNING TO HOKKAIDO

The latest reunion is part of the fifth round of efforts by Mirai o Tsumugu Volunteer and the Hamada family to return letters to the bereaved families in Hokkaido of those killed in the Battle of Okinawa.

Hamada and his wife have been retrieving and returning remains and possessions of people who died in Okinawa for nearly 20 years, and came across Koichi Ito, 97, in Yokohama’s Kanazawa Ward, who was the commander of the first battalion of the 24th division’s 32nd infantry regiment, through their activity.

After demobilization, Ito wrote letters to the bereaved families of his 500 subordinates killed in the war to detail their deaths. While some letters were returned, like the one to Takayoshi’s brother, Ito has received a total of 356 replies from relatives, 80 percent of whom were from Hokkaido.

Ito entrusted Hamada and Mirai o Tsumugu Volunteer with the returned letters so they can start seeking bereaved families in May last year. To date, 26 letters have been delivered to their recipients in Hokkaido by Aug. 16.

When combined with those addressed to people in Yamagata and Nagano prefectures as well as other regions on Japan's mainland, the number rises to 34. They continued touring Hokkaido until late August to deliver more letters.