Photo/IllutrationThese human skull models, seen in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, are marketed by Artec Co., a manufacturer of teaching materials. The one in the center carries a price tag of about 8,000 yen ($73). (Keiko Sato)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Schools in three prefectures have discovered that art props and anatomical replicas in their classrooms were actually human skulls of unidentified individuals.

How the skulls ended up at the schools remains unknown in all cases. Some experts point to a time decades ago when Japan had no laws governing cadavers and human bone specimens were being traded.

A government gazette article was displayed on Dec. 5 at the Kagoshima city hall in hopes of finding answers about one of the skulls found.

“Cranium alone found in senior high school art room/ Presumably female, age 30-40/ Identity info wanted. Contact xx division,” the article said.

The yellowish skull had been used for more than 20 years as a motif for sketches during art classes at the prefectural Konan Senior High School in Kagoshima city on the southern main island of Kyushu.

“I assumed it was a replica or an ape bone,” a vice principal at the school said.

An art teacher at Konan Senior High had seen a news report about a human skull found at the prefectural Tsurumaru Senior High, also in Kagoshima city, and suspected the specimen used by art students was also a real skull.

Kagoshima prefectural police identified the skull at Konan as human.

In the Tsurumaru Senior High case, the skull was found in June on a specimen rack in the biology lecture room. It belonged to a woman who had been dead for about 50 years.

In December, the Kagoshima prefectural board of education called on 59 prefectural senior high schools to conduct investigations, and a human cranium was discovered at yet another school.

A survey of prefectural junior and senior high schools and special needs education schools in Oita Prefecture, also on Kyushu, turned up human skulls at three of them.

Letters on a wooden crate at one of the schools, using the traditional Japanese calendar based on the reign of the emperor, said, “Donated in the Showa teens” (1935-1944).

And in Fukui Prefecture on the main island of Honshu, a survey found human craniums in biology rooms at three senior high schools.

One of the skulls is believed to have been at the school since the Meiji Era (1868-1912).


Although the origin of the skulls has not been confirmed, some might have come from India.

Until about 40 years ago, Kyoto Kagaku Co., a producer of medical teaching materials, imported human bones from India and processed them into skeletal specimens for sales.

Procurement of bones became more difficult later, and the company stopped manufacturing skeletal specimens, according to a long-time worker at the Kyoto-based company.

“I sold human bones in the past,” the worker said.

Further back in history, skeletal specimens were created from cadavers at many medical schools.

Before the postmortem examination and corpse preservation law was enacted in 1949, Japan had no legal provisions on the dissection of human bodies, according to Tatsuo Sakai, a professor of anatomy with Juntendo University’s Faculty of Medicine.

Sakai, who is chairman of the board of directors at the Japanese Society for the History of Medicine, said it was not uncommon for hospitals to provide medical schools with the bodies of individuals who died from diseases and had no family members.

The schools would use the bodies in dissection classes and create specimens from the bones.

“There is a good chance that skulls from that time were later provided to the senior high schools,” Sakai said.

He also said that the contemporary senior high schools seem to have broken no laws by having human skulls in their possession.

Even with the postmortem examination and corpse preservation law in place, medical faculties can dissect a human body and create a skeletal specimen if approval has been obtained from the bereaved family, Sakai said. If the deceased had no family members, a local government can grant permission.

A third party’s possession of a skull processed into a specimen also does not constitute a crime, he added.

“You could be accused of suppressing evidence if you discovered a skull with signs of intentional severing but did nothing about it and simply disposed of it,” said Hisashi Sonoda, a professor at Konan University’s law school.

However, he said there would be no violations of the Criminal Law if the skull is a legitimately acquired specimen.

The craniums discovered at the senior high schools were handled in different ways.

In Fukui Prefecture, the skulls are still kept at the schools.

But in Kagoshima, city authorities cremated the skulls, partly in complying with a request from school officials, who said some students might feel frightened.

Human bones from different times are valuable research materials that provide clues on anatomical changes from one age to another, said Yoshinori Kawakubo, an assistant professor of physical anthropology with the Saga University’s Faculty of Medicine.

“I hope the discoverers (of skulls) will contact universities to seek advice,” he said.

(This article was written by Miho Kato and Keiko Sato.)